Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Consequences of Moral Mediocrity

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 16, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2020]

John stood before the assembly of students on the first day of school and he said, "Good morning, boys and girls, I'm your new principal.  Welcome to Mediocre Middle School.  During the upcoming year we will be implementing a brand new philosophy here; it's called the "Just Get By" philosophy.  From now on, we will no longer challenge you to use your God-given abilities and do your best.  In fact, it won't matter to us whether you get an A-plus or a D-minus in any particular course.  The only thing we ask is that you avoid getting 'F's'.  If you can simply avoid failure in each subject, that will be acceptable to your teachers and to those of us in the school administration."  (Wouldn't some of you young people like to go to that school?)

The other day Jane attended the first meeting for the new local basketball team.  The coach said to her and the other girls, "Ladies, I have some good news for you.  During the upcoming season we will not be having any practices or scrimmages.  You can spend your time doing something else.  You won't have to spend hours learning plays or any new skills.  As long as you can dribble the ball without tripping over yourself, and shoot the ball so that it ends up somewhere in the near vicinity of the basket—that's all we care about.  Our aim is not to win, or to teach you new skills, or to help you to learn how to work together as a team.  All we want to do is survive the season."

Bill recently bought a new company.  During his first day as owner, he gathered together all of his employees in the corporate meeting room and he said, "Friends, from now on your one job requirement will be to show up for work every day.  You don't need to do anything while you’re here, unless you feel like it.  All I will ask is that you take up space here for 8 hours.  Then you can go home."

Now you might say, "Fr. Ray, what are you getting at?  Those are 3 ridiculous stories.  In the real world those things would never happen!" 

Correct!  And that's precisely why I shared them with you today!  You see, each of those anecdotes provides us with a clear example of mediocrity and minimalism: John the principal told his students that he was satisfied if they did the bare minimum in their studies; Jane's coach told her that she was happy with a mediocre effort and performance on the basketball court; Bill told his workers that all he wanted them to do was show up for work: "Do the bare minimum—just come through the door and take up space—and I'll be happy and pay you a full salary." 

Well, I think we all know that in the real world this kind of mediocrity and minimalism is not acceptable either in school or in sports or in the workplace.  Then why, I ask you, has it become acceptable for many people in the area of personal morality?  Sad to say, but when it comes to moral matters, many people today have become minimalists.  Their attitude is not, "What must I do to be perfect?  What must I do to be the best that I can be?"  Rather, their attitude is, "What's the bare minimum that I have to do to get into heaven?"  Or, to phrase the question another way: "How much can I get away with here on earth and still avoid going to hell?"

Jesus, in today's Gospel text from the Sermon on the Mount, gives us an implicit but very clear warning against this type of minimalistic attitude.  In effect he says to us, "Look, not only must you try to avoid mortal sins in your life; you must also try to avoid the venially sinful attitudes that lead to mortal sins."  For example, he says, "You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers, 'You shall not commit murder; every murderer will be liable to judgment.'  [But] what I say to you is: everyone who grows angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and if he holds him in contempt he risks the fires of Gehenna."  Murder and deep hatred are the mortal sins that Jesus mentions here.  But at the root of those sins is anger.  So initially—yes—the anger we have in our heart may only be a venial sin.  But if we don't make the effort to face it, deal with it, repent of it and let it go, then Jesus indicates that it can grow to the point where it becomes mortally sinful. 

This is why we must not be minimalists when it comes to matters of morality.  If we don't take our venial sins seriously and try to uproot them from our lives, then they can easily dispose us to more serious sins.

Our Lord makes the same point here with regard to impure thoughts.  He says, "You have heard the commandment, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  [But] what I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts."  Does that mean that every impure thought that pops into a person's mind uninvited is mortally sinful?  No, it doesn't.  But Jesus is warning us, "Look, if you don't make the effort to dismiss an impure thought when it comes into your mind—if you entertain the thought and say to yourself, 'Let me see how far I can go with this without falling into serious sin'—then chances are you will fall into serious sin.  And that serious sin will come the moment you have a firm intention to commit the lustful act."  The bottom line: when it comes to sins of lust and anger, the message of Jesus is: "Don't be a minimalist.  Don't simply try to avoid the big sins or you may fall into them." 

The proper Christian attitude concerning moral matters was expressed by our Lord in one line from this same Sermon on the Mount.  He said, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."  "But Fr. Ray, we're weak and sinful human beings; it's not possible for us to be perfect."  Here I think we can all take a lesson from two great football coaches—one named Lombardi, the other named Belichick.  Jerry Kramer, and other ex-Packers have often said, "Coach Lombardi demanded perfection from us.  He made us strive for absolute perfection on that football field.  Of course, he knew (and we knew) that we could never attain that goal.  But because he made us strive for that ideal, we all became better football players than we ever thought we could be."

You can be sure that Bill Belichick has the same message for his football players before every game and even before every practice.  Actually the message is implicit in what he says to his players all the time: “Do your job!”

Let me summarize it for you in this way:

In moral matters, if our goal is mediocrity, mortal sin may be the result.  But, if perfection is our goal, we will probably become better people, better disciples of Jesus Christ, better Catholics than we ever thought we could be.  May it be that way for all of us.