July 12, 2020 – Vices and Virtues | Sloth and Diligence

By Rev. Victor Kim
Matthew 25:14-30

When I say the word sloth, what comes to your mind?  For a lot of people, the first thing they think of is a strange looking creature with very long claws hanging upside down from a tree limb.  Sloths are the world’s slowest moving mammal and their digestive systems are the most inefficient of all mammals, taking around two weeks to process a meal of leaves.  So that left the sloth to evolve in one of two ways.  They could eat more, or they could do less.  Sloths evolved to do less.  Their entire lifestyle is about expending as little energy as possible. It’s no wonder that the sloth has a name that is synonymous with lack of activity, laziness. We also use the word sloth to describe people who are lazy, inactive or idle. 

Now I think that we can all agree that being lazy or idle isn’t a good thing.  We shouldn’t aspire to be lazy, in fact I’m not sure that the word lazy and aspire can be used in the same sentence! But is laziness a deadly sin?  How does sloth come to rank among the top seven deadly vices? I mean, I understand pride or envy, anger, greed, gluttony or lust, but sloth?  Couldn’t we easily think of a host of other vices that should get higher billing than sloth?  One magazine caption read, “If sloth had been the original sin, we’d all still be in paradise.” 

Now for some people, laziness is a deadly sin.  My parents told me that over and over again. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase; idle hands are the devil’s workshop.  That sort of comes from the Bible, from Proverbs 16, but I say sort of because only one translation, more of a paraphrase than a translation, actually uses the word idle.  The same verse in the NRSV reads, scoundrels concoct evil, certainly bad in itself, but very different from idle hands being the devil’s workshop.  But you get the point, sloth, idleness, is a serious sin.  We Protestants are especially affected by the issue of laziness or idleness, this issue of sloth.  We have what’s known as the Protestant work ethic.  In that understanding, work is given to us by God, it’s a divine vocation, so laziness, sitting around doing nothing, isn’t just being lazy, it’s a rejection of what God intends for us, God’s call on our lives. 

So, we’d better get busy, right?  Well, yes, and no.  Our modern understanding of sloth isn’t quite what was intended when the early church tradition decided to name sloth as one of the deadly sins or vices.  In her book Glittering Vices, Rebecca DeYoung writes that retrieving the traditional definition of sloth will help us see… how sloth has more to do with being lazy about love than lazy about our work.[1]  The Greek word that is linked to the idea of sloth is acedia, which literally means ‘lack of care.’  To not care isn’t a physical condition as much as it is a spiritual one.  So for the early church fathers, the lack of physical effort isn’t the main problem with sloth, it’s only the symptom of a much more serious issue, a spiritual crisis which threatened the entire commitment of a person’s life to God.  What happens when a person is suffering from sloth is that the person feels an intolerable burden in trying to stay faithful to God with all of its daily drudgery and discipline, and they seek to run away and be free of their wearisome vocation.  I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I can honestly say that the life of faith isn’t always all glitz and glamour.  Sure, there are times when I feel like I’m on the mountaintop, like the disciples were when Jesus was transfigured before them, when he shone brighter than the sun, times when my faith feels energized and invigorated.  There are moments when I really feel like I get it, I get God and I get what God’s up to in the world and up to in my life.  But there are probably far more times when like the disciples after the transfiguration, Jesus leads me down off the mountaintop because there is work to do in the valleys of life.  And it’s in those valleys that we spend far more of our time.  And the work in the valley isn’t very glamourous and doesn’t seem all that rewarding and I confess there are moments when I dream about doing anything but the work God calls me to do.  Maybe you’ve felt this way as well? I suppose we could respond to this struggle by choosing not to do anything, to shut down, to stop the work we think God wants us to do.  We can choose to stop because the work doesn’t bring us a sense of accomplishment or pleasure.  But it’s not only inactivity that defines sloth.  Earlier when I said that we’d better get busy, I responded with yes, and no.  For some the antidote to sloth is to get busy, to get back to doing what God intends for us to do.  It’s about rediscovering our passion for the vocation that God calls us to embrace.  But for others getting busy is exactly the problem.  If we define sloth as a lack of care, being lazy, not about our work but rather about our love, then getting busy isn’t always the corrective for sloth.  In fact some of the busiest people we know can suffer from the vice of sloth.  If God desires that we live out our vocation as people of faith, people who are called, and all of us are called, but if we struggle with that call, with the call to live faithfully, if we struggle with the demands of the Christian life, which again isn’t always glamourous or instantly rewarding, we can respond to this struggle, not only by stopping, by shutting down, but also by choosing to become busy with other things, things that aren’t part of the vocational calling of God.  If sloth’s problem is a lack of care, being lazy in love, then choosing to be busy, becoming a workaholic around things that don’t nurture love, especially the kind of life rooted in the love of God for us and for others, isn’t solving our problem, it merely runs away from it.  The busiest people in the world can suffer from the vice of sloth just as much as the laziest person.

If we use the example of marriage as a model for love, it’s been said that married love is“eternal, but it’s also daily, about as daily and unromantic as housekeeping.”  It is through daily practices and disciplines, whether we feel like doing them or not, that the decision to love is renewed and refreshed, and the commitment of love is kept alive.  The slothful person, in this sense, is one who resists the effort of doing day after day after day whatever it takes to keep the bonds of love strong and living and healthy, whether he or she feels particularly inspired about doing it or not.[2] 

We get this, don’t we?  We know that the love in our marriages doesn’t always shine brightly. There are times, sometimes long times, when the light of our love is dim, even flickering.  If we let those times lead us to shut down, to stop trying, that sort of lack of care, sloth, will destroy many marriages.  But conversely, some of us in those moments of hardship get busy, but busy on the wrong things.  We throw ourselves into our work, into other distractions, into anything but the hard work, the diligent discipline of doing those unremarkable things that ultimately keep a marriage alive and rekindle the flame of love.  That’s also sloth, that’s also acedia, a lack of care, a lack of love.  We know that the love in a marriage isn’t magic, just because we say we do once, doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do anything more ever again. 

And in the same way, but on a much more profound level, God’s love for us desires that we become new people, new creations in Christ.  But that takes time, it takes a lifetime.  I remember the retired Catholic Bishop of Calgary, Fred Henry, telling this story.  He would always wear his clergy collar as a bishop wherever he went and one day he was flying from Calgary to Toronto and as he was seated in his seat, he saw a rather flamboyant woman walking down the aisle of the plane and he said a little prayer, Lord, please don’t seat her next to me.  Well, you know what happened, don’t you!  Of course she sat down right next to him; this was in the old days when people could sit next to each other in planes without physical distancing.  She looked at Bishop Henry in his collar and said to him in a much too loud voice, “Reverend, have you been born again?”  He tried to engage her in a friendly conversation about faith but she was insistent in knowing whether the bishop had been born again because, as she said, if you couldn’t point to a time in your life when you had a born again experience, you weren’t saved.  Sensing he couldn’t get out of this situation without directly answering the woman’s question, Bishop Henry replied, yes, ma’am, I have been born again and each and every morning when I wake up, I pray that I might be born again and again and again. 

We don’t become new creations in Christ by magic.  Yes, in Christ, we are made new creations, we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit, but just as in baptism when we confess that our baptisms are only the start of our new life in Christ and that God’s grace and our response to it are not tied to the moment of baptism, but continue and deepen throughout life, so we can’t just sit back on our laurels of being born again but have to live out what it means to be born into this new life Jesus offers us, day by day, day after day, throughout our entire life.  It means honouring the intention of the one who offers us this new life, it means seeking God’s way for our lives, even when that way is difficult, indirect or unappealing by the world’s standards.  This new life, this new identity in Christ, this is the target of sloth’s resistance.  We resist by either shutting down when this new identity, this new life God desires for us seems too hard or difficult, or we find restless distractions of endless activity but on our own terms.  The slothful person tries to find happiness while evading the daily demands of self-giving love.[3] 

So how does the parable Jesus told, read by Anne-Marie during our Time with Young Christians, factor into all this?  How is that parable related to the vice of sloth?  Well, the obvious interpretation of the third servant burying his one talent in the ground might be that of fear or prudence.  The servant even says that he was afraid of his master, that he didn’t want to risk losing what had been entrusted to him.  So he buried his talent in the ground.  Maybe that was the most prudent thing to do.  Some of us might wish that we could have buried our investments in the ground over the past few months since the outbreak of the pandemic.  We know that the daily convulsions of the stock market aren’t for the weak of stomach.  But I wonder what the master of the servants was really angry about.  He calls the third servant wicked and lazy.  Sounds like a harsh judgment of the servant, especially the wicked part. I get the lazy part, but why is he called wicked? 

Well, if Jesus intends this parable to speak of something about the kingdom of heaven, then that might give us a clue.  If, however imperfectly, the master represents God in some way, though God doesn’t reap where God hasn’t sowed or gather where God hasn’t scattered, then the wickedness of the third servant isn’t in his laziness with the money entrusted to him, it’s in his unwillingness to understand or comprehend the intention of his master.  The servant knows his master, he knows the kind of man he is.  But the kind of man he is, is also someone who will entrust great resources to his servants, he is willing to take great risks.  The intention of the master is to have his servants act in a way that honours the trust that he has placed in them.  But the third servant has no intention of living up to that trust.  He is indifferent to the intention, he doesn’t care, there isn’t a willingness to become the kind of servant to whom the master could say upon his return, well done, good and faithful servant… I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master. 

The third servant suffers from sloth, both in his inactivity with the resources entrusted to his care, but also in the unwillingness to understand and comprehend the intention of his master. The corresponding virtue to the vice of sloth is diligence, or we could call it discipline.  It’s the discipline needed in the servant to do what was intended, whether he was afraid to lose the money or not.  I’ve always felt that the master was more angry with the servant for the lack of effort, the lack of trust, then he would have been if the servant had lost all the money while at least trying to do something with it.  If Jesus intends the parable to be about the kingdom of heaven, I don’t think the fact that the first two servants doubled their money is the point.  The point is that they trusted the intention of their master and they did the work that was expected of them, even if the money was put at risk.  The kingdom of heaven is like people who will stay the course, who will stay committed to the vocation and identity God intends for us, even when that path has risks, even when we are tempted to play it safe, to be prudent. 

Why is sloth such a dangerous vice?  Because it’s the easy way out.  Our faith will know times of turmoil and turbulence.  There will be mountaintops, but far more valleys.  When the temptation of sloth, acedia, strikes, when we are suffering from the weariness of the ordinary,we need to stay the course, we need diligence, we need discipline, even when we aren’t feeling particularly inspired.  The life of faith is not easy, especially if all we’re looking for are the highlights.  Sloth’s greatest temptations are escapism and despair, to abandon ship or drift towards something more comfortable.   As one prayerful petitioner put it, “Forgive me for letting love die when it demands action in order to live.”  My friends, we need to stay the course, to remain diligent, to persevere.  May we not give in to the easy way out.  May we instead, live with risk, seeking to honour the intention of the one who offers a new life, so that one day, whether we’re sure we’ve succeeded or fear we’ve failed, we will hear our master say to us, well done, good and faithful servant, enter the joy of your master. 

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Written by Rev. Victor Kim.
Preached on July 12, 2020 at Richmond Presbyterian Church
without members in attendance due to COVID-19 Crisis then posted online

[1] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices, p.82

[2] Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: On Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work, p.53

[3] DeYoung, p.87