Sin — that one syllable, three letter word is an enigma. To those who don’t believe in wrong-doing, ownership and repercussions, it is easy to dismiss, to flick away this tiny flea. To those who do believe we have a moral compass, are responsible for our choices and decisions have consequences, the word sin is dark and disturbing. It can rile our peace and rattle our souls.
There are so many definitions of sin to examine, maybe to determine its existence for ourselves and to define our guilt. The Hebrew word “hata” commonly used for sin, is translated as going astray. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” Thus we reason, God and man are both worthy of respect and love.
The so-called official list of sins in the Old Testament, as well as in the New Testament is long, covering everything from arrogance to wickedness, and includes sins again God, man and the law. It’s daunting to read.
In Islamic faith, Muslims believe that sin is anything that goes against the commands of Allah or the law laid down by religion.
In a secular search, Merriam-Webster defines sin as “1 a. an offense against religious or moral law; b. an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible; c. an often serious shortcoming and/or 2 a. a transgression of the law of God; b. a vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God.”
All so complex and, in some cases, contradictory.
Fortunately, James F. Keenan, Jesuit priest, professor and theologian, in his 2022 book, "A History of Catholic Theological Ethics," sums up sin in the most striking and simple way for us to grasp. He writes “Sin is the failure to bother to love; we sin not from weakness, but from strength or capacity; and finally we often do not realize that we have sinned.”
How profound! “A failure to bother” is the takeaway. Consider some transgressions in the list of sins — it’s not failing to love our God whole-heartedly or failing to love our neighbor adequately, which we all do at times, even if we are trying. It’s worse — it’s not even trying! It’s being in our own zone, totally self-consumed, and constantly absorbed in the me-ness of living. The Cambridge Dictionary states “If you are not bothered about something, it is not important to you or does not worry you.”
If Keenan is right in his distilled and unique definition of sin, how then do we get out of our own muck and learn to bother, learn to love?
Perhaps, a simple way is to surround ourselves with people of observable goodness, who do bother. We can watch how they behave and spend their time. Maybe, if we are graced, we will be invited to accompany them occasionally, nudging us out of our own needy ways.
Or, we could find a social justice cause that speaks to us, tempting us to join, allowing us to make a small difference, shaking us up in such a way that we decide bothering to love is a priority.
Finally, grasping mercy is an antidote to sin, can transform our lives. We have been shown incredible mercy by God who in love created the world out of chaos, who brought each one of us into being, and who by His son suffering and dying for us, gave us a chance of eternal life. How do we imitate and ask for grace to extend that enormous gesture of love and mercy?
Lest we lose our grip on the essence of sin, remember it is not an item from a list of don’ts we should avoid or confess, but, more importantly, a failure to bother to love, and an overriding lack of mercy shown to others. Before the focus of wrong-doings in faith communities was considered in defining sin, there was the list of right-doings described by Matthew in his gospel 25:35-46.
In this list of to-do’s, Jesus addresses the works of mercy (often referred to as the Corporal Works of Mercy) —the need to feed the poor, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners, shelter the homeless, and bury the dead.
Questions abound. Why? We read on in Matthew, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.” And, “when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.”
Before we jump in, we need to realize that humans extending mercy is a radical act requiring grace. Father Keenan helps us once again understand real mercy by his definition— “Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.” The other may be a family member, a friend, an associate or a stranger.
Showing mercy, one human to another, is messy. It’s not for the fainthearted. It’s is not a simple gesture. It causes sleeplessness. Tests patience. Disrupts. Torments. Still, it changes everything.
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Defining sin as a failure to bother