At the beginning of Mass we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins; for “what I have done and what I have failed to do”; forgiveness for the sinful deeds I have committed and for the good things I have neglected —for sins of commission and omission. When a Sunday School teacher asked her class “What are sins of omission?”, little Paula’s hand shot up and she answered confidently, “Teacher, these are the sins we forgot to commit!” Paula’s theology was, of course, a little bit confused!
Adults too get confused! We mostly focus on sins of commission; on the bad things we have done, and easily forget about sins of omission — the good things we could and should do but so often neglect.
The Pharisees, obsessed with the law, condemned Jesus for things he had done, like healing on the Sabbath or eating and drinking with sinners. Jesus however focussed on the positive, proclaiming that the greatest commandment of all is to love God with all our being and to love our neighbour as ourselves. That, for him, summed up the whole Law and the prophets.
Jesus warned of the danger which sins of omission pose to our salvation in his teaching on the Final Judgement (Mt 25:31). He condemned the self-centred to “eternal fire” because “I was hungry but you would not feed me, thirsty but you would not give me a drink, a stranger but you would not welcome me, naked but you would not clothe me, sick and in prison but you would not care for me”. They protested loudly of course that they had never seen him in these circumstances, only to be told, “Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me”. They were condemned, not for evil deeds, but for neglecting mercy.
Similarly, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33), the Jewish priest and Levite, probably travelling to the Temple, did not do anything bad; they just “walked past”, leaving the injured man half dead on the road. They sinned against the primary law of love. So too in the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11), the virtuous elder brother did no wrong but sinned by failing to forgive. “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you”.
Lent is a time for penance and renewal; a time to look into our hearts and make a new start. Traditionally we make resolutions to give up some luxuries or bad habits. Perhaps this year we could be more positive, focussing on ‘take-ups’ rather than ‘give-ups’; on basic Christian duties that we too easily neglect. We could give more time to God in personal and family prayer, to reading and reflecting on the scriptures, to serving our community. We could spend more time with our families, showing them greater respect, gratitude and love, affirming them and forgiving old hurts. We could reach out to anyone in trouble, with respect, care and encouragement.
In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19), Lazarus lay at the rich man’s door, covered in sores and hoping in vain for some scraps of food. When the rich man died and found himself in hell while Lazarus enjoyed eternal bliss, some commentators suggest that he protested angrily, “Why Lord? I did no wrong. I didn’t make him poor or give him these sores. I didn’t assault him or drive him away. For heaven’s sake Jesus, I didn’t do anything”. The Lord looked at him sadly and said “That’s it! That’s exactly why you’re here!”
Bro Columba Gleeson