On what we have failed to do

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

One of the great Christian preachers was St John Chrysostom. John was given the name Chrysostomos, “golden mouthed”, in reference to his remarkable gift of preaching. He lived in the latter years of the fourth century. He was born in Antioch, Syria, where as a priest he became known as a great preacher. He was installed as Patriarch of Constantinople, then, the imperial centre. There he continued to preach as he has done in the past. He spoke most eloquently of the Christian mysteries and attracted large crowds to listen to him. We have copies of 800 of his sermons.

His message, though, was also unsettling. He preached in the prophetic tradition, calling out moral fault, even among the elite. He denounced abuse wherever he saw it. He would eventually be forced into exile as his preaching made enemies at court. 

John Chrysostom faithfully reflected the ascetic tradition found in the Old Testament prophets and in the teaching of Christ. He called out moral fault in no uncertain terms.

Thus, in one homily he said,

“For what profit is there, pray, in purple, and raiment wrought with gold, and a jewelled crown, when the soul is in captivity to the passions? What gain is there in outward freedom when the ruling element within us is reduced to a state of disgraceful and pitiable servitude. For just as when a fever penetrates deep, and inflames all the inward parts, there is no benefit to be got from the outward surface of the body, although it is not affected in the same way: even so when our soul is violently carried away by the passion within, no outward government, not even the imperial throne, is of any profit, since reason is deposed from the throne of empire by the violent usurpation of the passions, and bows and trembles beneath their insurrectionary movements.”

One of the elements in both Old and New Testaments and in Christian history has been the bold prophetic call to correct moral weakness.

In his 90 sermons on St Matthew’s Gospel, for example, John Chrysostom referred no less than 30 times to the vice of avarice.

On one occasion he said, “When your body is laid in the ground, the memory of your ambition will not be buried with you; for each passer-by as he looks at your great house will say, ‘What tears went into the building of that house! How many orphans were left naked by it, how many widows wronged, how many workmen cheated out of their wages?’ Your accusers will pursue you even after you are dead.”

John Chrysostom reflects what we read in the Scriptures today. The Prophet Amos is strong in his condemnation of revelling in comforts while others suffer. We heard his words of warning: “Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion”. His criticism is that material comfort dulls the awareness of the needs of others and, indeed, spiritual imperatives. 

From the Gospel parable given to us today we can note that the sin of the rich man, known as Dives in Christian tradition, is that he ignored Lazarus sitting at his gate. He was so focussed on himself and his comfortable way of life, dining to excess every day. He was simply oblivious to Lazarus and his needs.

When we say the Confiteor we ask for forgiveness not only for the sins that we have committed but also for “what we have failed to do” – our sins of omission.

Sins of omission are sins that leave undone the good or duties that we are obliged to do. They vary in their gravity. For example, if I were to choose not to attend Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation with full knowledge and deliberate consent, then I would be morally culpable of a serious sin.

If, however, I fail to help out in the family due to my laziness, then I have still sinned by omission but to a lesser degree.

In Jesus’ parable given in Matthew 25:31-46 about the corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick – the issue is that there are things that should have been done but weren’t. There is a list of various sins of omission. Jesus says that those who fail to care for those in need will be subject to judgement.

Morality doesn’t just consist of avoiding evil but also doing good. Hence St Thomas Aquinas’s articulation of the first principle of morality states: “Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (Summa Theologiae, I-II:94:2). We are expected not just to avoid evil but also pursue doing the good.

Today, in the light of the readings from Amos and the Gospel, and in reflecting on the preaching of St John Chrysostom, let us recall that we should examine our conscience not only what we have done, but also on what we have failed to do.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Sunday, 25 September 2022

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