The Rich Man and Lazarus
Pope Francis, in his 2017 Lenten Message, speaks of the Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man had it made in this life, while Lazarus struggled terribly, lying at the door of the rich man’s house, starving and deathly ill. Yet the rich man didn’t even notice Lazarus. Although the rich man “dined sumptuously each day,” he didn’t provide any assistance to this starving brother lying there in need. The rich man sinned by “omission.”
Now much has been said and written about the sins that we commit through word and deed. Just running through the Ten Commandments can help bring many of these sins to mind. But what about sins of omission?
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines an omission as, “… the failure to do something one can and ought to do.” It’s not about doing something wrong, but failing to do something that we should do. In the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, Lk 13:6-9, we see a reference to sins of omission:
There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. [So] cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’
Simply put, a sin of omission would be not doing something that we should have done. This can cover a lot of spiritual territory. The barren fig tree did not bear fruit. Do we bear fruit in our lives? In the past I personally didn’t pay much attention to this notion of sins of omission. My sense was that I hadn’t committed this sin, committed that sin, or committed those other sins, so I was doing pretty well. In talking with others, I think that this can be a pretty common mindset. If it is that common, and we don’t recognize and amend our behavior, we could be in for some big surprises down the road.
Love God—Love Our Brothers and Sisters
In 1 John 4:20-21, we read:
If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God* whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
If we do not love a brother whom we have seen, how can we love Him whom we have not seen? If we don’t extend Christian charity, in the broadest sense, to others in need, how are we demonstrating our love for God?
A Stronger Case against Omission
Jesus actually tells us in Mt. 25:40-46 that:
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
If we are to love God with our whole heart, our whole mind, and all our strength, we are to also love our neighbor. The point seems pretty clear in the foregoing passage—we should demonstrate our love for God and for our neighbor.
Sin of Omission Related to Prayer
In his book, Sin and Its Consequences, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning addresses sins of omission. His examples deal with sloth or slothful behavior. Sloth—acedia or laziness—can get in the way of a dedicated prayer life. According to Cardinal Manning, we can start out with good intentions and habits. Over time, though, we become less zealous in our prayer routine if we give in to sloth. We may end up cutting corners, and becoming more distracted and superficial in our prayer. Our motives for doing things may no longer be for the love of God. Thus, our relationship with God suffers and our love for God may become diminished. It leads to a downward spiral that the Cardinal suggests can actually lead to sins of commission as well.
Not Speaking Out When We Should
Occasionally we’ll find ourselves in conversation with someone who brings up a topic dealing with morality. For example, I could be in a discussion with a friend or acquaintance when they bring up abortion. They may express an opinion counter to what the Gospel and the Church teaches. If they’re on the wrong side of the issue, I ought to tactfully, charitably say something. If I avoid speaking out due to fear of rejection, am I not sinning by omission? In a similar fashion, to listen to someone who wants to share gossip and not speak up about it would be an omission. We’ll be held to account for such omissions. Clearly, speaking out can be very difficult, especially if we feel a need to garner the approval of others. But in the final analysis, whose approval should we be seeking—that of men or that of God?
Avoiding Taking Other Actions
Have you ever felt a prompting to do something for someone or say something to them, and you didn’t carry it out? We may often be prompted by that still, small voice to do some act of mercy for another, yet we don’t follow through. Maybe it’s because we just didn’t really understand clearly what we were to do. Then, only later did we discern what it was. Perhaps it was due to our mistrust in listening to the Holy Spirit at the time—our lack of confidence. For example, a couple I know lost a loved one and I can still recall, as I was helping set up for the Mass that day, the urge to sit down next to them before Mass and say something to them. But I didn’t do it. Afterwards, I shared this incident with my spiritual director. It seems I failed to do what I could have done in their time of need.
Sure, it’s easy to avoid that still, small voice. It’s easy to dismiss it as just some random thought that happens to pop up in the middle of some other activity or task we’re doing. If you’re somewhat skeptical about being guided by the Holy Spirit, you might even say that someone who’s hearing a voice very often ought to get some professional help. I don’t buy any of these reactions. Looking back in my life, there were people who appeared at the right time to me for various reasons. Similarly, I can recount multiple times that I missed the mark and did not follow the promptings when I should have. In just the same way, I can think of some incidents where I did what I felt I was being encouraged to do and things worked out well.
Getting Beyond Sins of Omission
How can we avoid the silent sins of omission? I think awareness is the first step. We need to be aware of the obligations we have to each other in this life as we pursue eternal life with Him. We are to love our neighbor. Loving them means helping them attain eternal beatitude. As well, what are we doing to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters? Can we help them with food, clothing, shelter, instruction, a ride to Mass, or delivering Communion to them? How about a call to someone home alone or in a nursing home? What if we’re short on funds and can’t afford to feed someone? Jesus asks us to help one another. Can we help out with donation of our time and effort? What little thing can we do to help our suffering brothers and sisters?
Fr. Joseph Esper, in a post at Catholic Journal, gives us some good advice. He suggests that Jesus is not looking for us to each set up some charitable foundation or perform foreign missionary work. Rather, He’s asking us to become more aware of the needs of our brothers and sisters and do what we can, in real time, to give them a hand. Just don’t ignore them.
There has been a lot of talk about the path to hell being wide and easy, and the road to heaven being narrow and hard. If we’re not more attentive to potential sins of omission, we may end up on the wrong road to eternity. We don’t need to become scrupulous here, but I think that some of us might benefit from being at least a little more attentive. I know I certainly would.