Today’s Gospel reading is a very straight forward correction of an age-old tendency to blame the body or matter for sin or for evil. The idea that somehow the soul or the spirit is a good part of the human being and the body is an evil part crops up throughout history, even in Christianity. This kind of thinking has been condemned as the Albigensian or Catharist Heresy. It has been called by different names, but regardless of the name, it is simply wrong.
Jesus continues the teaching of the Book of Genesis that the body, the whole person and our earthly environment, were all created good. The teaching of Jesus places the responsibility for sin – theft, murder, avarice, envy, deceit, arrogance, impurity – in the heart which means that it lies in our choices. The direction of our hearts, our intentions, our purposes - in these lie good and evil. Such teaching aims to make us more responsible, to leave us less opportunity to “pass the buck,” to claim that “the devil made me do it.” It wasn’t the devil that made me do it or my body or my flesh or matter. We don’t pray, “Deliver us from matter” but “deliver us from evil.” Such evil comes from within. We are never finished with the need to ask the Spirit to purify and simplify our intentions, our desires, and our motivation. The catechism emphasizes this as it notes: “Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.”
We have all read stories of how some of the greatest saints wore hair shirts or practiced flagellation as a penance. St. Francis himself practiced severe bodily mortification. However, bodily mortification is a way to remind us of the need for inner conversion of heart. We practice penances not because the flesh is evil but because it leads us to conversion of heart.
When we examine our consciences, it is important that we remember this teaching so that we can truly repent. If we continue to blame sin and evil on our bodies or on material things, we will never be able to truly repent as we will never get to the source of sin in our lives; namely, a hardness of heart.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator