Sloth - What Is It?
This past Saturday I had the opportunity to preach at Aldersgate. We are in the middle of a sermon series focusing on the Seven Deadly Sins. I preached on 'sloth' and used Mark 10.17-31 as my text. I want to share with you my notes and writing on the topic below. You will also find audio of my sermon at the bottom of this post.
When I think of sloth, and I would venture to guess most of you also think the same thing, I think of a cute, furry creature with long claws that moves at a snail’s pace. If you Google the word “sloth”, you will find picture after picture of sloths doing sloth-like things: laying around and taking naps. The slow moving, snail’s pace nature of the sloth leads to the question, “is laziness really a sin?”
Is it really sinful to sit on the couch all Sunday afternoon watching football with a pile of chicken wings on your left, a six pack of your favorite beverage to your right, and a permanent imprint of your derriere on the couch cushions? If football doesn't tickle your fancy, you can substitute any other sport, T.V. series binge, or newly released video game.
Is it really sinful to overly enjoy laying in bed with a good book or napping in a hammock all weekend long? I understand that in a society where the American dream is based on working hard, that laziness would be a bad thing. But is slothful behavior so severe that it should rank as one of the seven deadly sins?
I want to examine sloth and the ways it is manifested in our lives.
The 4th century theologian Cassian’s definition of sloth varies slightly from our 21st century American definition. According to Cassian, sloth is a spiritual vice that causes a person to forget their religious commitments. Sloth is what keeps us from responding to or even simply keeping the commitments that come with professing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
In 4th century monastic communities, spiritual, as well as physical, disciplines were required to ensure the well-being of the community was maintained. For the 4th century monastic community sloth was viewed as an external, as well as internal, sin. Sloth threatened to undermine the lifelong commitment a monk was not only making to the spiritual community, but also eroded one’s ability to develop a lifelong relationship with God. We see this referenced in Psalm 119, where the psalmist is someone who has devoted himself to studying God’s Word but now finds himself weary and overcome by the oppression preventing him from his daily meditations. What the early church fathers, like Cassian, are alluding to is that sloth is not simply laziness. It is a lack of love and lack of caring.
Thomas Aquinas made the observation that slot reflects a lack of love that manifests itself through laziness or restless busyness. He called this, “an aversion to the divine good in us.” Yes, sloth can manifest itself in our couch-potato state of withdrawal. According to Dr. Will Willimon, former United Methodist Bishop and current professor at Duke Divinity, sloth allows the “creative human made in the image of God to become indistinguishable from the slug.”
But what about the busy sloth, what about the person who devotes themselves so hard to their professional work or social status that they create a false sense of rest or experience a state of permanent restlessness?. Henry Ford said, “work is our sanity, our self-respect, our salvation. Through work, and work alone, may health, wealth, and happiness be secured.” For that person, the deadly sin manifests itself as a barricade they surround themselves with. The idea of health and wealth being created through viewing work as salvation enables them to separate themselves from the demand to love others. This leads to indifference and apathy.
If sloth is what enables us to build a wall around ourselves, separating us from the outstretched hand offering us grace, we can begin to see the apathy of the rich young ruler. Jesus said, “you shall not murder.” The rich young man replied, “check!”. Jesus said, “you shall not commit adultery.” The rich young ruler responded, “no problem.” Jesus said, “you shall not steal.” That was not an issue for the rich young ruler. Jesus continues, “you shall not bear false witness.” “Check!” again from the rich young ruler. “You shall not defraud”, Jesus said. The rich young ruler thought to himself, “I’ve got this one covered too!” Finally Jesus told the young man, “honor your father and mother.” “Done, check, I’m way ahead of you Jesus”, is what the rich young ruler might have been thinking.
Jesus then reminds the young man that he lacks one thing. We can all probably recite this line by heart: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Jesus is referring to the poor man, the outstretched hand, that the rich young ruler defrauded to attain his wealth. Jesus is calling the young ruler out for NOT keeping all of the commandments.
In order for the rich young man to inherit eternal life he must be willing to remove the veil of apathy and dismantle the system which established his wealth - which is why the young man grieves for having “many possessions”. During this time, land was the basis of someone’s wealth. Acquiring land was primarily done through debt-default of small farmers. The possessions acquired by the young ruler were obtained by violating the very commandment the young ruler said that he has kept since his youth.