Sunday, March 30, 2014

SIN AND SUFFERING: There’s no direct connection between them in THIS life, but there WILL BE a direct connection the next.

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 30, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 9:1-41.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2014]

There is no direct connection between them in THIS life, but there will be a direct connection in the next.

I’m talking here about sin and suffering.

At the time of Jesus, of course, the prevailing view among the Jewish people was that there is a clear and direct connection between a person’s bad behavior and whatever suffering they experience here on this earth.  This explains the reaction of the disciples at the very beginning of today’s gospel story from John 9.  They all walk past a man who was born blind, and they ask our Lord what they think is the obvious question:

“Who sinned?” –“Who sinned, this man or his parents, [such] that he was born blind?”

In their minds it was a simple case of cause and effect: this man’s personal sin (or the sin of his mother and father) was the cause, and his blindness was the direct and logical—and unavoidable—effect.
This, you will recall, was also the attitude of the three friends of Job, who came to “console him” after he lost his possessions, his health and most of his family in one single day!

Ostensibly they came to give Job some consolation in his suffering and pain, but for the most part all they ended up giving the poor man was a lot of grief, by telling him over and over again that he must have done something terribly wrong to bring this kind of tragic situation upon himself.

But the story makes it quite clear that Job was a devout and upright man who loved God deeply, and who consistently did the right thing in his life.

Perhaps the disciples of Jesus hadn’t read the book of Job in awhile.  Or perhaps they had forgotten one of the most important lessons of that book, namely, that sometimes good people suffer terribly—and not because of their sins!

Eventually, as we all know, the disciples would learn this particular lesson through Jesus himself, who suffered more than anyone else, even though he never committed a single sin in his entire life.

Now I’ve heard many homilies and talks on today’s gospel story over the years, and almost all of those homilies and talks have focused exclusively on the point I just made with you: that there’s no direct connection in this life between a person’s sin and their suffering—although it should be added that sometimes we can experience a particular suffering because we’ve committed a certain sin (for example, a person robs a bank, then gets caught and goes to jail.  He suffers in jail because of his sin; because he stole; because he violated the seventh commandment).
Yet, as was the case in today’s gospel for the man born blind, very often suffering comes to us for no apparent reason.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is; that’s the way it is during our earthly lives.

But that’s not the way it will be in eternity (and this is the point that I’ve very rarely heard made in other talks and homilies).  As I said at the very beginning of my homily this morning: There is no direct connection between sin and suffering in THIS life, but there will be a direct connection between them in the next!

And there—in eternity—no unforgiven sin can be ignored or hidden.  As St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading from Ephesians 5, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible” (and in the next life we will encounter the pure “light” of God’s presence and truth—a light which will expose any unrepented sins we may have on our soul, in addition to exposing all our good deeds and virtues).  The Lord said something similar to the prophet Samuel in today’s first reading when he said that we human beings see “the appearance” but he, the Lord, “looks into the heart.”

Of course the good news is that God has given us the means to deal with this situation.  Because of the sacrificial death and resurrection of his Son, we can receive forgiveness for any and every sin we commit after Baptism—right now, before we die—in and through the sacrament of Confession.

Now you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, we’ve heard you speak about Confession before—lots of times!  Are you going to do that AGAIN today?!”

No, I’m not.

I’m going to give that job to Pope Francis!

The Holy Father gave a great teaching on the importance of Confession at his Wednesday audience on the 19th of February this year.

I’ll close my homily today by quoting a few of the things he said in his brief address that day.

At the beginning he spoke about the “why” of the sacrament.  He said:

“The forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves.  I cannot say: I forgive my sins.  Forgiveness is asked for, is asked of another, and in Confession we ask for forgiveness from Jesus.  Forgiveness is not the fruit of our own efforts but rather a gift, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us with the wellspring of mercy and of grace that flows unceasingly from the open heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ.”

He then confronted the common objection that all we need to do is tell our sins to God:

“One might say: I confess only to God.  Yes, you can say to God ‘forgive me’ and say your sins, but our sins are also committed against the brethren, and against the Church.  That is why it is necessary to ask pardon of the Church, and of the brethren in the person of the priest.”

The Pope knows that some—perhaps many—stay away from confession out of shame and embarrassment, even though they know deep down inside that they need it.  He addressed that issue too:

“’But Father, I am ashamed ...’.  Shame is also good, it is healthy to feel a little shame, because being ashamed is salutary.  In my country when a person feels no shame, we say that he is ‘shameless.’... But shame too does good, because it makes us more humble, and the priest receives this confession with love and tenderness and forgives us on God’s behalf.”

The Pope even mentioned how beneficial Confession is from a purely natural, psychological point of view:

“Also from a human point of view, in order to unburden oneself, it is good to talk with a brother and tell the priest these things which are weighing so much on my heart.  And one feels that one is unburdening oneself before God, with the Church, with his brother.  Do not be afraid of Confession!  When one is in line to go to Confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes Confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven … happy. This is the beauty of Confession!”

Finally, like every good preacher, our Holy Father encouraged personal reflection and issued a challenge:

“I would like to ask you — but don’t say it aloud, everyone respond in his heart: when was the last time you made your confession?  Everyone think about it ... Two days, two weeks, two years, twenty years, forty years?  Everyone count, everyone say ‘when was the last time I went to confession?’.  And if much time has passed, do not lose another day.  Go, the priest will be good.  Jesus is there, and Jesus is more benevolent than priests, Jesus receives you, he receives you with so much love.  Be courageous and go to Confession!”

Remember, my brothers and sisters, that there will be a direct connection between our personal sins on this earth and whatever suffering we may experience in the next life—either the temporary suffering of purgatory, or the eternal suffering of hell.  But the good news is that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in and through the sacrament of Confession, breaks that connection!

And the really, really good news is this: with respect to those sins that we repent of and confess, Jesus breaks the connection forever!