One of the books I’m currently reading is Mortal Wisdom: Lessons and Texts From the Catholic Tradition, written by James F. Keenan, S.J. I’m not entirely sure how the book ended up on my “to be read” pile, having no recollection of who recommended it or what otherwise prompted me to buy it. One of the early chapters of the book is devoted to the subject of sin.
In the chapter, Keenan poses the question whether “we really sin out of our strength or out of our weakness.”
Mostly, Keenan suggests, we spend our effort striving to overcome one or another weakness. And when we go to confession (those of us who do), we confess our weaknesses: our struggle with anger, with lack of courage, with lack of patience. That focus, he maintains, “allows us to avoid the real understanding of sin.”
When we look at the Gospel narratives, Keenan reminds us, the stories we hear about sinners are not about people who sin out of their weakness, but those who sin out of their strengths. The Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is in his strength. The rich man who steps over Lazarus is in his strength. And he gives several more examples of people who could have done something but did not, leading him to ask “Is is not odd, then, that the entire Gospel tradition has us sinning out of our strengths, and yet we think that we sin out of our weaknesses”?
Focusing on our “weak sins” trivializes sin; it allows us to avoid highlighting “our coldness of heart, our meanspiritedness, our pettiness, our deep-seated resentfulness, our sinfulness. When we name our ‘weak’ sins, we claim simultaneously that we struggled, that we sincerely made an effort, that we were, after all, vulnerable and excusable.”
Keenan gives an amazingly short definition of sin:
Sin is simply the failure to bother to love….Our sin is usually not in what we did, not in what we could not avoid, not in what we tried not to do. Our sin is usually where you and I are comfortable, where we do not feel the need to bother–where, like the Pharisee…we have found complacency, a complacency not where we rest in being loved, but where we rest in our delusional self-understanding of how much better we are than others. It is at that point of self-satisfaction that–like…the Pharisee, the prodigal’s older brother, or the rich man–we usually do not bother to love.
That should give us all something to think about.