Reflections: Covering the Sins of Others
It is common in parish life to be weighed down or scandalized by the sins of others. At times, our eyes our opened to the struggles of our brethren and that realization can be overwhelming. So what can we do? In our transient society, where one can uproot as easily as blinking an eye, the temptation is to run. However, there is no response so destructive as this. In the parish, we are in the fold, together with all of our Lord’s sheep. The sheep bicker and stumble, but how much better is that bickering then to be found alone outside where the wolves roam?
What comes to mind is our Lord’s words: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye" (Matthew 7:3-5). When we see our brothers fall we ought to pray immediately for God’s mercy to help us see our own sin. We are all saved by His great mercy, and owe mercy to one another.
Nonetheless, that warning of our Lord's can feel artificial and cold, when our hearts are heavy. This morning, I was reading a commentary on James 5:19-20 which struck me. Why does God put us in community? Because it is in community that we have an opportunity to learn to love. It is in community that we can do that which heals our brokeness, to cover the sins of others.
The Apostle James tells us: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know how he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (v. 19, 20). Why then must we remain rooted in the fold? One can only be Christian by living within Christian community (Heb. 10:25; I Cor. 1:10; 1 Th. 5:13). We must remain in the fold because that is where we have the opportunity to be Christian, to hide in love of God and love of one another. It is in the fold that we can learn to show mercy, and in showing mercy open our hearts to God’s mercy.
Here are the words of Fr. Tadros Malaty and beautiful advice for those struggling to bear one another’s sins (Gal. 6:2).
Commentary by Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty
St. James concludes his epistle by this statement. In this epistle, he tackled many subjects which reveal the weaknesses of those to whom he sent the letter, like the love of teaching, the love of appearances, love of abundant talking, favoritism for the rich in places of worship, swearing, however he concludes the epistle by asking them to seek the lost sheep.
The reason for that is that “he will save a soul from death,” this is the soul of the one who goes astray. Also, he will “cover a multitude of sins,” that is the sins of the one who seeks the lost. As we cover the sins of the lost, God will cover our sins too. As we are compassionate with those who deviated from truth, God will be compassionate with us and raise us up with them1.
With mercy and faith, all sins are forgiven, for “In mercy and truth, atonement is provided for iniquity,” (Prov. 16:6) through our desire to save those who went astray and our labor to warn them and advice them. ~ Abbot Pinufius
Does someone save another from physical death, although eventually he will die, he deserves a great reward, how about the reward for the one who saves someone from eternal death! ~ St. Gregory
Bringing one soul close to God by repentance is much better, in the eyes of God, than all the oblations, for there is nothing in the world better for God than the human soul, for everything in the world will perish except the soul because it is eternal. ~ St. John Climacus
Let us weep bitterly, more than those who wail, for they ignore their salvation. If you see a blind man going to fall, don’t you stretch your hand to support him? So how can we see our brothers falling in danger, the danger of falling in eternal Hades, and we do not stretch our hand to rescue them? Whenever you see someone who needs spiritual or physical healing, do not say that this is not my duty for I am a layman with a wife and children, and this is the duty of the priest or the monk.
Answer me, if you see a container full of gold, do you keep it for others to take it, or do you immediately grab it before anyone, like the snatching wolves? May you have this desire toward your falling brothers, telling yourself that you have found a precious treasure, which is the salvation of your brother. God Himself says to you, through the mouth of his apostle, that when you turn a sinner from the error of his way, you will save a soul from death!
And how do you go about converting someone? It is like the seeds sown by farmers. They are sown once, but they do not survive forever
unless they are carefully nurtured. And unless the tillers of the soil protect the seeds, they will be exposed to the birds and to every seed-eating creature. We are just like this, unless we protect what has been sown in us by constant care, for the devil will snatch it away and our own lethargy will destroy it. The sun dries it up, the rain drowns it, and weeds choke it, so that it is not enough for the sower to pass by once only. Rather he must tend it often, driving away the birds of the air, pulling up the weeds and filling up the rocky places with much soil. He must prevent, block off and eject any form of destruction. Where soil is concerned, everything depends on the farmer, for without him it remains lifeless, ready only to suffer harm. It is not like that with spiritual soil however. For in spiritual matters it is not all up to the teachers; at least half the effort must come from the pupils. It is up to us the teachers to sow the seed but up to you the pupils to do the rest. ~ St. John Chrysostom
If it is a great thing to rescue someone's body when it is on the point of death, how much greater is it to deliver someone's soul from death, so that it might live forever in the heavenly country? ~ St. Gregory (The Great)
Someone who preaches to sinners in order to convert them will save his soul, even if the people he preaches to be not actually converted. ~ Hilary of Arles
A man who converts others will have his own sins forgiven. ~ Origen