Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 7 February 2010: Sloth

7 February 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence 

Readings: Job 28:1-11 & Acts 14:8-17

In ten days time Lent begins, the season when amongst other things we focus on Christ’s ability to resist temptation and our inability to do the same. Jesus was tempted but without sin; we are tempted but constantly fall into sin.

During this month of February in my sermons at Matins I’m going to think about sin. More precisely, about the seven deadly sins, and my colleague Dr Nicholas Sagovsky will continue the course into the month of March.

Today I’d like us to think about Sloth, but before I do that I will say a brief word about the deadly sins in general and how the list has emerged.

If you’re a Roman Catholic and familiar with your Catechism you will know what the seven deadly sins are:
Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

But where did this list come from and why are these sins labelled “Deadly”.

The particular list of seven cannot be found in any one place in the Bible, although there are references to them individually, in various places. However, a list similar to the seven we now have, goes back as far as St John Cassian in the 4th century, and a revised list to Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th.

Then in the medieval period, Dante, in his epic poem “The Divine Comedy” focussed on the deadly sins in detail as his characters journeyed through hell, purgatory and to paradise.

Dante considers the deadly sins as offences against love; grouping pride, envy and wrath as perverted love; greed, gluttony and lust as excessive love of earthly goods and describing sloth as insufficient love.

In the modern Roman Catholic Catechism each of the deadly sins has a corresponding virtue, the seven being: humility, charity, kindness, patience, chastity, temperance and diligence.

We might think it more positive to focus on developing our virtues rather than wallowing around in sin.

However, I believe that we can only turn to those positive attributes once we have faced our deficiencies in a realistic and honest way. 

But what about the use of the word deadly? Can a sin be so serious that it leads to eternal death?

Personally I’m not comfortable with the concept that certain sins condemn us and cut us off from salvation. I believe the New Testament teaches us that however serious our sinfulness, if we turn to god in true sorrow, he is gracious and merciful and always forgives the penitent sinner.

However, I do think it’s helpful to think of these sins as being deadly in the sense that they prevent us from being totally alive to God and to our fellow human beings.

So let’s turn now to think about sloth in particular and the effect it has on us and why it is such a damaging form of sin.

Of all the Deadly Sins, sloth is not a label that’s used much in everyday conversation.

We’re quite likely to criticise someone for being greedy, or envious or proud; but it’s not often you hear the comment: “I can’t stand so & so because he is so slothful.” 

So what exactly is sloth? Returning again to Dante, he describes this sin as a failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and with all one’s soul.

Another medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas described it as: “Sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.” He continues, “it is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses a man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds.”

Then the Pocket Catholic Catechism says of sloth, it is: “The desire for ease, even at the expense of doing the known will of God. Whatever we do in life requires effort. The slothful person is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it”.

So, when we turn a blind eye to things going on around us which we know to be wrong, or when we get compassion fatigue and ignore the plight of people in need, or when we fail to step in to help someone in trouble, we fall into the sin of sloth.

If we look at the Gospels there are plenty of examples of Jesus drawing our attention to this kind of sin, especially in his Parables.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, those who considered themselves to be good, upright, religious people were in fact slothful. The Levite and the Priest ignored the plight of the man beaten up by robbers and passed by on the other side ~ leaving it to someone else to do the dirty work!

In the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus; Dives, as he is called in some translations, ignored the needs of the poor man lying at his gate and carried on enjoying the good life while Lazarus was left hungry and covered in sores. Dives was guilty of Sloth.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats coming before the King on judgement day, the sheep are praised for their good works while the goats are condemned for failing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, or to visit the sick and those in prison. Once again their sin was sloth.

Perhaps though, the worst instance of sloth in the Gospels occurs not in a parable, but in what actually happened to Jesus at his trial.

St Matthew tells of how Pilate could find no wrong in Jesus and was anxious to let him go, yet under pressure from the crowds he gave in and handed Jesus over to be crucified. As he did so, he publicly washed his hands, saying that he was innocent of this man’s blood.

He wasn’t innocent at all, he knew that his action would lead to the execution of a man who was innocent; Pilate was guilty of sloth.

That particular example shows us just what a serious sin this can be.

And I’m sure we can think of plenty examples down through history of people standing by and doing nothing while innocent people suffered and died.

It was Edmund Burke who once said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

So how do we ourselves face up to the sin of sloth and deal with it?

This is where we are helped by the Virtues which match or counteract the deadly sins ~ in the case of sloth this is diligence.

Diligence requires attentiveness to what is happening around us and persistent effort to get things done. It is about expending energy in order to change things.

So as we draw closer to the season of Lent when we are called to examine our lives closely, we mustn’t confine this simply to looking inwards, we need to look outwards to what is happening to people in the world around us.

In many places people are hungry, people are homeless, people are being tortured, people are living on rubbish heaps in order to scrape a living, people are being trafficked and abused.

Have we the desire and the energy to tackle these problems? Have we the love for God and our neighbour that Christ calls to exercise? Or will be sit back and sink into the sin of sloth?


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