Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
Rooting out Sin
by Rev. Jack Peterson, YA
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.

At that time, John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."  Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him.  There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.  For whoever is not against us is for us.  Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

Jesus uses very strong language in today’s Gospel passage to challenge us to root sin out of our lives: Cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin.

Jesus does not really ask us to resort to such extreme physical measures to avoid sin and remain close to him. He is using hyperbole, a common technique used in speech and writing, employed for the sake of emphasis and effect.  For instance, a young person might say, "I am so hungry I could eat a hundred hamburgers" or a longtime Washingtonian might say, "The Washington Football Team has improved so much, they will not lose a game this year." Neither person intends to be taken literally; rather, they want to state that they are very hungry or that they are convinced that the local team has improved and should be better than last year.

Jesus does not desire physical mutilation of the body. However, he does desire that we take very, very earnestly our commitment to remove serious sin from our lives.

When we come before Jesus to repent of our sins, we seek to bring him true contrition, a deep, gut-wrenching sorrow of the soul for having offended God and neighbor. In fact, we should desire to bring perfect contrition to that encounter with Christ. Perfect contrition flows from a profound love for God; my soul aches for having offended the one who loves me more than I can imagine and who deserves to be loved above all else. Perfect contrition obtains the forgiveness of mortal sins if it also includes the firm commitment to go to the sacrament of confession as soon as possible     

Imperfect contrition, also a grace of God, is born more from an awareness of the ugliness of sin or fear of impending penalties, including damnation, for the sins I have committed. It also is a prompting of the Holy Spirit and can initiate a movement of the heart that will be brought to completion by absolution in confession. By itself, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of mortal sins, but disposes us to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of penance.

Another critical element of genuine contrition for our sins is a firm resolve to avoid those sins in the future. All of us need to improve on that resolve. It takes a large dose of humility to come to grips with how seriously we should be addressing that resolve.

We must start with being honest with ourselves — do I really want to avoid that sin in the future? Maybe the first place to turn is to beg God for a genuine desire to turn from that sin and never commit it in the future. Honest prayer goes a long way in our walk with Christ.

Secondly, we need to commit to implementing effective means to root that sin out of our lives. This always includes a dedicated effort to avoid the near occasion of sin. When does it happen? Where does it happen? With whom does it happen? What internal triggers cause me to turn to that sin in those moments? Avoiding sin, especially habitual sin, demands that we take very seriously the necessity of avoiding the places, times, people and triggers that prompt me to turn to that sin.

Thirdly, we need to be accountable. A good spiritual director is an enormous help in this realm. So, too, is a good spiritual friend who shares our commitment to grow in faith, virtue and charity, and is willing to hold us accountable to a plan for that growth. It is amazing how we can so quickly fool ourselves and rationalize our behaviors; a good friend or spiritual guide will call us out and help us to see the folly of our ways.

One final aid to consider in this challenging process is to fill the hole that is left from cutting a certain sin out of our lives with good things — people and activities that renew, restore and rejuvenate. It is critical to fill the hole with prayer, exercise, good reading, Christ-centered friendship and service of our neighbor. If the hole is not filled in with life-giving activities, we will easily slide back into old, bad habits.

Jesus does not want us, in truth, to cut off our hand or foot, or to pluck out our eye. Rather, he wants us to be very serious about demonstrating true contrition by increasing our resolve and using effective means to root mortal sin out of our lives.