There were once two evil brothers. They were rich and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended church and appeared to be perfect Christians.
Then, their pastor switched. Not only could the new pastor see right through the brothers’ deception, but he also spoke well and true, and the parish grew. A fund-raising campaign began to build a new extension on the church.
All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the extension. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At the funeral, you must say my brother was a saint.” The pastor gave his word and deposited the check.
The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” he said. “He cheated and stole.” “He wasn’t faithful to his wife and abused his family.” After going on like this, he finally concluded, “But, compared to his brother, he was a SAINT.”
We all want to be called saints but not THAT way.
Today’s First reading and Gospel remind us how to become real saints. Moses says in the first reading: “hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live.” Jesus says in the Gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Too often we think of rules in the abstract. We see the 10 Commandments as a bunch of “shall nots” without going deeper into them. We see the goal as avoiding or managing sin and forget how grace transforms us interiorly to virtue. The attitude that the goal of every Christian is simply to be free from sin is absolutely destructive of Christianity. Dallas Willard criticizes both conservative and liberal Christians for falling into what he calls the “Gospel of sin management.” We need to understand the differences between the true Gospel and that of sin management. I propose that we first examine what the Gospel of sin management consists of, then compare it to the real Gospel, and conclude with some ways we can escape from sin management into the true Gospel.
The Gospel of Sin Management
There are 2 essential doctrines of the false Gospel of Sin Management: the empty alliance that lets you in, and the focus on sin.
The idea of an “empty alliance” may not be clear. Imagine a basketball team that let you play even if you weighed 400 pounds and couldn’t shoot. Or imagine a teacher who gave you 100% just for showing up, even if you chatted all through class. Those would be empty alliances. They have no real value because they don’t demand anything from you.
How many of you have heard one of the Protestant groups who after a 1-hour sermon asks you to come forward and accept faith in Jesus to be saved. This is an empty alliance because nothing is expected of you. We can fall into the same empty alliance by simply focusing on who says “Catholic” on a parish survey or sends their kids to a Catholic school. Nothing is demanded of them, so the Gospel is irrelevant in their lives.
The other dogma of the Gospel of sin management is as the name suggests: SIN management. According to this Gospel, the goal of all we do as Christians is about sin, either avoiding it or managing it by good works and confession, or explaining it away. This reduces Christianity to a series of don’ts: don’t steal, don’t hit your brother, don’t do drugs, and don’t forget your homework. Who wants to follow something that just says “don’t.”
In reality, we usually say “no” because we’ve already said “yes”: You might say “no” to tickets to your favorite sportsball team because you already said “yes” to an anniversary dinner with your wife or girlfriend; You might say “no” to a girl who wants to do something you know you shouldn’t because you’ve already said “yes” to your family’s and Jesus’ love; Or you might say “no” to weed because you’ve said “yes” to being on the basketball team. It’s a lot harder to say “no” without previously saying “yes” to something opposed to it.
The Gospel of Sin management focuses on the no’s not the yes’s.
The Two Gospels Compared
Let’s compare this Gospel of sin management with the true Gospel. We’ll just focus on key differences; otherwise, we’d be here all night. The biggest differences are the ideal and the heart.
The result of the Gospel of sin management is minimalism. Its model is abstract not Christ. When you go to Rome, you can see the Pietà: possibly the most beautiful statue ever carved. People will comment on how Michelangelo worked his chisel, how he positioned the figures, or how he polished the statue; nobody says, “this is great because it isn’t made of silly putty.”
Or take a saint, any saint you like, and examine his life. I’ll take John Paul II: he preached man’s dignity when communists denied it by force, he taught theology of the body against the sexual revolution, and he brought all the young people together for the biggest festivals in history. Nobody says he’s a saint because he didn’t lie or steal.
Since it is minimalist, the Gospel of sin management doesn’t affect the rest of our life. We can sit comfortably in a pew for 53 minutes on Sunday, we’d be mad if it reached 54 minutes, and think we’re good Christians. Instead of this minimalism, the true Gospel is demanding. Jesus says things like “Go, sell what you have and follow me”; “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”; or today: “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” Is that a Gospel of sin management?
Instead of minimalism, the Gospel asks us to “be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.”
The Gospel of Sin management only asks for minimal content, but the true Gospel asks our heart. The Pharisees knew the scriptures inside and out, they practiced every single commandment, yet Jesus saves his harshest condemnation for them. Why? They had the content, but their heart was far from the Lord; they had hardened their hearts.
Jesus is not satisfied if you fulfill a bunch of rules, he wants you to desire good, which means desiring him, and seeking him out, with your heart. As the Gospel acclamation said: “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life.” A priest who used to be in the Army explained the difference to me: when he was in the army, he could wish the commander burn in hell so long as he obeyed; but when he became a religious brother he had to love his superior.
This is a radical difference. You may not realize how radical it is; it is the heart not just actions.
Escaping the Gospel of Sin Management
The Gospel of Sin Management is common yet preventable. Let me offer 2 escapes from it: awareness of sin’s nature and a return to Jesus.
Sin is not sin because there is a “don’t” in the Bible but because it goes against the ideal Jesus presents us. We sin we are not like Jesus. Christ is the only measure of a Christian. Our sin is not measured against the ten commandments or the laws of the nation; our sin is measured against Jesus’ example. This is about doing good, not just avoiding. We are called to be apostles not just nice people. That’s tough!
But we can never live up to the ideal. That’s why we have the 2nd way to escape: return to Jesus.
Only Jesus can give us strength. We become like him when he lives in us. Today’s psalm teaches us this trust in the Lord: “You are good and bountiful; teach me your statutes. Let your kindness comfort me according to your promise to your servants.” Our strength is in you, O Lord.
If you forget the rest remember these 2 things: (1) Sin is not breaking a rule; sin is going against our ideal Jesus Christ, and (2) We can only live up to that ideal with Jesus
In the Gospel, we hear Jesus tell the Pharisees: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Today this might be reworded: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret iPhones, football games, and car engine noises; why do you not know how to interpret the words of Jesus.” Jesus is not a minimalist, he does not preach a Gospel of sin management. Jesus presents us an ideal and then says, “Come Follow me!”
Note: this was supposed to be a homily for Wednesday, March 23rd, but I misunderstood the circumstances so had to give a brief 3-minute version. Since I had already written this based off something I wrote eight years ago, I decided to share it with all instead.