[“Shadow in the Middle” by Daniel Bonnell]I
Fr. Benedict Groeschel frequently will say that the one Catholic dogma that everyone agrees with, because it is in our face every day, is Original Sin. In this fallen world we come face to face with sin and sinners everyday. In light of today’s Gospel reading, one important question to ask ourselves is, “How do I respond when faced with a sinner?”
There are two WRONG WAYS to face a sinner.
First, it is wrong to ignore the reality of sin. Today’s modern culture proclaims that the highest value is tolerance. Pope Benedict XVI has bravely challenged this false value, calling it the tyranny of relativism. The tyranny of relativism says everyone can do whatever they feel like, that there are no objectively evil actions. In other words, sin doesn’t exist. If we accept that point of view, we end up condoning evil. That’s tantamount to approving of people destroying themselves – because sin is always self-destructive.
It is not easy to acknowledge the reality of sin. Often we think it is more “charitable” not to challenge sin. It is easier to ignore the fact that a couple is living together while not married, then to challenge them with the truth that fornication is a sin that distorts the beauty of human sexuality. It is easier to turn a blind eye to the co-worker who is taking office supplies home for their children. It was not easy for me to tell a woman who wanted to give me a set of CDs that I could not accept them because she had copied them without permission, and the people who recorded the CDs earned their living by selling them, so by copying them she was stealing. However, it is NOT CHARITABLE to leave a person in their sin. Sin deprives a person of God’s grace, and God’s grace is the greatest gift that we can receive. We should want every human being to get to heaven. That is the greatest charity that we can exercise, yet that is not going to happen if we do not challenge them to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” In today’s Gospel reading Christ clearly condemns the sin. He tells the adulterous woman: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” He didn’t ignore the sin.
However, we cannot be like the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading either. They almost seem to take delight in catching the woman in adultery and condemning her. They are also using her to try to trap Jesus. It is wrong to condemn the sinner along with the sin. While sin is a rejection of God, God NEVER REJECTS the sinner. God still loves that person and wants that person to repent and be saved. As God’s children we are called to have the same attitude. In fact, Christ actually gave His life for people who were sinners — you and me.
Why is it that we are not allowed to condemn the sinner? Because only God can see the heart of the person. Only God knows how responsible that person is for the evil choices they make. Only God knows that person’s whole history. Therefore, only God can judge people fairly.
We can condemn evil actions. As a society, we can even punish people for crimes and limit their freedom so that they do less damage, but only God can condemn the actual person. We are allowed to condemn the sin, just as Christ did with the adulterous woman, but we are not allowed to condemn the sinner. With Christ, we are to say, “Neither do I condemn you.”
As I have already said, this can be very difficult to do. It really requires a change in the way we look at people. Instead of looking at others as not being linked to us, we need to really see them as our neighbor, whom Jesus tells us to love as we love ourselves. Here’s a story that demonstrates this paradigm shift, this shift in the way we look at people that we are called to make.
Imagine you are at the airport. While you’re waiting for your flight, you buy a box of cookies, put them in your traveling bag, and sit down next to a gentleman to wait for your flight.
While waiting, you reach down into your bag and pull out your box of cookies. As you do so, you notice that the gentleman starts watching you intensely. He stares as you open the box and his eyes follow your hand as you pick up the cookie and bring it to your mouth. Just then he reaches over and takes one of your cookies from the box and eats it! You’re more than a little surprised at this. Actually, you’re at a loss for words. Not only does he take one cookie, but he alternates with you. For every one cookie you take, he takes one.
What’s your immediate impression of this guy? Crazy? Greedy? Rude?
Meanwhile, you both continue eating the cookies until there’s just one left. To your surprise, the man reaches over and takes it. But then he does something unexpected. He breaks it in half, and gives half to you. After he’s finished with his half he gets up, and without a word, he leaves.
You’re left sitting there dumbfounded and still hungry. So you go back to the kiosk and buy another box of cookies. You then return to your seat and begin opening your new box of cookies when you glance down into your traveling bag. Sitting there in your bag is your original box of cookies — still unopened. At that point you realize that when you reached down earlier, you had reached into the other man’s bag and grabbed his box of cookies by mistake.
Now what do you think of the man? Generous? Tolerant? You’ve just experienced a profound paradigm shift. You’re seeing things from a new point of view. We need a supernatural paradigm shift, a change of mentality, so that we automatically give others the same benefit of the doubt that we give ourselves.
One way to improve our ability to separate the sin from the sinner is simply to practice. Like every virtue, this one grows when we exercise it. One area where we have plenty of opportunities to practice separating the sin from the sinner is in our conversations.
From time immemorial, people have derived a sinister pleasure from talking badly about other people. We run into it every day. Around the water cooler, in the lunchroom, in the parking lot conversations begin with “Did you hear about what so-and-so did?…” and then comes the scandalous story, the story about something bad that someone supposedly did.
If the person really did the evil thing, spreading the news (unless someone else really needs to know about it) is the sin of detraction. If the person didn’t do the evil thing, and someone started the rumor out of envy, spreading the news is called the sin of slander or calumny.
It is a proof of original sin that we so often take pleasure in hearing about other people’s failures and sins, whether true or not. And so, when someone starts telling us one of these stories, it is the perfect chance to reverse original sin by not taking that pleasure. This is a simple application of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Do we want people speaking badly about us? Of course not. So we should make it a policy not to listen to people speaking badly about others.
We can’t help hearing stories, but we can refuse to take pleasure in it, and refuse to believe any evil that we hear about others unless we see it with our own eyes. If we do, we will grow in virtue, and like Christ, we will learn to condemn the sin without condemning the sinner.