|St. Augustine of Hippo|
St. Augustine once remarked that there are “two things in human beings from which all sins spring: desire and fear.” He then goes on to note, “Suppose a reward is offered to you to induce you to sin, something you find very attractive; you commit the sin for the sake of what you desire. Or perhaps you are not seduced by bribes, but are intimidated by threats; then you do it because of something you fear.” (Exposition on Psalm 79) If we take a moment to honestly reflect on our own motives and actions I think we can readily recognize the truth found in Augustine’s observations on the dynamic of sin.
This awareness of the dynamic of desire as one of the primary motives of sin is expressed by our Lord in this Sunday’s gospel parable (Mt. 21:33-43). It is found in the attitudes and actions of the tenants. The tenants continue to mistreat and even kill the servants that the landowner sends to them. But it is when the landowner sends his son that the dynamic of disordered desire present in their hearts is truly revealed for all to see. “This is the heir,” they say, “Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.” They are so caught up in their disordered desire that they are blind to reason. What murderer could ever hope to rightfully gain the inheritance of the murdered victim? It is their inflamed desire for the inheritance that has led them into this great sin.
The paradox found when we hold this parable in relation to the whole Gospel proclamation is that the disordered desires of the human heart are indeed laid bare when the Son is sent to precisely break the cycle of desire and fear in which we are lost. And it is broken despite our very selves. “Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.” In Christ, this is exactly what has happened but we do not steal away the inheritance as the tenants sought to do. In the love of God, the inheritance not deserved is plentifully given! In Christ, the only rightful heir, we gain that inheritance which also makes of us sons and daughters. This is what God has done and it is a wonder to behold!
The infinite love of God breaks and transforms the cycle of fear and desire by himself becoming the one saving victim of that sad cycle. Where once desire and fear led only into sin; it now – through love of God and fear of God – motivates one toward the good. So, Paul can write confidently in his letter to the Philippians, “Finally, brother and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:7-9)
“…think about these things.”
“So then, my brothers and sisters,” writes Augustine, “love and fear lead us to every right action, and love and fear lead us to every sin.” Desire is not bad in and of itself. In fact it can be a great good and a path to holiness. The key distinction is found in the motivation of the heart and if we are trusting enough to lay our hearts and our desire open to the work of healing grace.