Running to stand still: the futility of sin Print
From the Diocesan Administrator
Thursday, Apr. 04, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
From the Diocesan Administrator column

Following is a homily given by Msgr. James Bartylla, diocesan administrator, for the third Sunday of Lent.

In today's Gospel, Jesus moves us from the "news of the Jerusalem Gazette" to the "Jerusalem Farmers' Almanac" in the short span of one Gospel passage.

First, there is the news of the Galileans killed by Pilate and then the 18 people killed in the fall of the tower at Siloam. Our Lord then, almost jarringly, shifts to the parable of the gardener, the fig tree, the decision to either cut down the fig tree for lack of fruit or leave it another year and cultivate and fertilize it to bear fruit.

Psychology of unrepentant

Jesus first gives us the psychology of the unrepentant. The most damaging consequence of sin in many ways is not in the external evil of the sin, as bad as that is. It's the internal effect of sin on the sinner that silently works its destruction.

It is the willingness to overlook sin in ourselves to an ever greater degree, each unrepentant sin committed being one brick upon another brick that builds a tower that eventually falls back upon us in so many ways. In its greatest degree, such piling of unrepentant sins in ourselves can lead to a false activism of "looking for evil in others" that we determine must be crushed in others -- a kind of scapegoating.

Sometimes the scapegoating is mild, "Oh my, those 18 people at the tower of Siloam must have done something terrible." It's such "good sport" to find the sins of others, and ignore the teetering tower of our own hearts -- it's the pitiable sport of rumors and gossip that masks our own sins.

Avoiding the cultivation  of conversion

Sometimes the scapegoating is greater, like Pilate shedding the blood of those Galileans as they offered sacrifice. When vice begins to see virtue as vice, so that vice can fool itself into thinking it is virtuous, vice begins to seek its own remedies in ever greater vice -- it is "running to stand still".

In short, many people would rather be a fig tree that is cut down than endure the cultivation of conversion, or to a lesser extent, many yearn in addicted futility for just one more year but again without the cultivation of conversion.

The ballad by the Irish band U2, "Running to Stand Still", in beautiful, melodic melancholy, captures the futility of sin in its lyrics. It is a song about a woman's drug addiction, her misdirected desire for transcendence, her helplessness and frustration in sin -- that bogus escape, that fraudulent promise, that siren song.

The lyrics include, "Said I gotta do something about where we're going  . . . run from the darkness in the night . . . sweet the sin, bitter the taste in my mouth . . . you got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice, you know I took the poison from the poison stream, then I floated out of here . . . suffer the needle chill, she's running to stand still."

It's the quiet desperation of sin. Some, in a false bravado of seeming pragmatism, conclude addiction is more powerful than love, forgetting Love is the true end (Deus Caritas Est -- God is Love), while addiction and sin are misguided means seeking it, as vice must pay tribute to virtue in the hypocrisy of serving as only a false means.

'Running to stand still'

I see a nuanced effect of "running to stand still" even in some Catholics today, in their skepticism of some of the Church's teachings, yet seeking the same teaching elsewhere in their deep human yearning for that same truth, but on their own terms.

One example is how many people see purgatory as an artificially created Catholic doctrine. At best, they'll avoid talking about it, maybe even in embarrassment, and leave it to collect dust on that self-prescribed section of the proverbial bookshelf of real but inconvenient doctrines.

But purgatory and the communion of saints are greatly human -- the need for purification for those who die good but imperfect and our desire to help them is irresistible.

I recently saw the movie Field of Dreams, a 1980's Capra-esque movie about a farmer in present day Iowa who builds a baseball field based on a voice that says, "If you build it, he will come." The deceased but restless members of the discredited Chicago "Black Sox" team of 1919 come back at the 1980's baseball diamond built in the middle of a cornfield -- they need reconciliation for the scandal of accepting money to intentionally lose the World Series of 1919.

Eventually, the farmer hears the same voice that says, "Ease his pain", without understanding its meaning. At the end of the movie, the farmer plays catch with his deceased father, a lover of baseball, to ease his pain, for he wondrously shows up on the baseball diamond as the two are reconciled after a dispute that festered between them since the farmer's adolescence and his father's early death.

How we need purgatory and reconciliation, for even if we refuse it from the Church, we'll build a baseball field about it, make a beautiful movie about it, and call it our own with popcorn and a soda.

Psychology of the truly  repentant

Jesus lovingly doesn't leave us "running to stand still"; he gives us the psychology of the truly repentant. The beautiful effect of conversion is seeing ourselves more clearly as we are, like the gardener who sees clearly the need to cultivate and fertilize around the fig tree for another year.

St. Augustine says that "It is easier for God to hold back anger than mercy," and St. Thomas Aquinas says, "It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way."

If we convert and cultivate our soul in God's mercy during Lent, we'll find our own true "Field of Dreams" in the Church, in which we run to Our Lord.