26 Sunday B

Thomas O'Loughlin

Introduction to the Celebration

We gather here as a community, but we are not a club. A club is a group of like-minded people who see themselves or their interests as distinctive from others. We are a community whose deepest desires are pursued by every human being of good will. Whoever is seeking to do what is right; whoever is seeking peace; whoever is bearing witness to the truth; whoever is caring for the creation; whoever is helping the poor – with all these we make common cause and, gathered here, we commend them to our heavenly Father.
We desire to accept Jesus' inclusive vision that all who are not against us are for us, but know that often we fall short of this calling. So now let us reflect on how we live as disciples and recognise our need of forgiveness and healing.
 
Sean Goan

At first glance this collection of sayings do not appear to have a lot in common but in fact everything here is a challenge to those who claim to follow Christ to pay attention to their attitudes and motivation. This is because they have been given an awesome responsibility and they must not presume they are somehow superior to others. Jesus first corrects John for stopping someone doing the work of the kingdom because he is 'not one of us.' There is no on place for elitism among his followers and indeed anyone who shows them a simple kindness will be blessed. This means that there is an onus on the disciples to reflect the work and attitudes of their master. Just as he reached out to the sinners and outcasts so must they – failure to do so will result in harsh judgement because they will be undermining the very project they are called to serve. This is why they must avoid anything that would lead them to sin. The true disciple will be the one who knows how to rejoice in the good that is done by whatever source and who also knows that his or her own behaviour can make it hard for others to come to faith. The lesson here is to examine ourselves and to judge no-one else!

Gospel: Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-8

Today's lection is made up of two distinct pieces of Mark's story: first, the incident of 'the stranger' exorcist (vv 38-41); and second, teaching on temptations (vv 42-8). The 'link' in Mark's eyes presumably being the reference to 'his reward' in v 40 acting as an introduction to various ways by which one could lose one's reward. However, neither Matthew nor Luke understood Mark's linking of the two passages as each responded to the two sections differently from Mark (and one another).

The first section is by far the most interesting as it gives an insight into 'open' attitude of Jesus to the whole work of inaugurating the kingdom (a kingdom that for Jesus is characterised by healing, forgiveness, and restoration, rather than the advent of judgement and retribution). This is the very opposite of a sectarian view: you do not have to join the right huddle in order to be part of the coming kingdom of God. This openness is the antithesis of most of the preaching of the time: the people in Qumran believed one had to go off and live in a separate settlement; John the Baptist preached the need to become associated with the special group that was distinguishing itself from the sinful mass of the people by a baptism of repentance; the zealots were preaching a political sectarianism, the Pharisees a distinctiveness of precise adherence to the law. Now Jesus tells people that the Father's love knows no bounds and extends to everyone who seeks him and, therefore, this stranger is as much a member of the kingdom as the visible group. This openness was too much for the more sectarian minded in the early church: Matthew simply ignores the incident and then, at a suitable point, has Jesus preach the opposite position (Mt 12:30).

The second section is a single piece of teaching expressed through a fourfold repetition of a warning: any amount of physical suffering is better than sin or causing others to sin. It is with these highly visual warnings that Mark rounds off his teaching on discipleship. The examples show how the early church took over the imagery of a place of continual torment, Gehenna (rendered in our translations as 'hell'), awaiting those who accept a sinful way of life. The most gruesome image is that of 'where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched' which is a quotation from the final verse of the Book of Isaiah (66:24). In Isaiah, this was read as the final destiny of those who had rejected the reign of God; now the image is invoked as the alternative to discipleship. Placed immediately after the statement about people being rewarded for the smallest acts of mercy (v 40), the combined text has a very particular flavour. On the one hand, the least acts of mercy can bring one into the kingdom of God, but, by contrast, to deliberately lead 'little ones' — this refers to the poor and the marginalised, and not simply children — astray leads to death.

Michel DeVerteuil

Today's passage is in two sections:
- a narrative: verses 38 – 40
- a series of five sayings: verses 41 - 48.

Modern bible scholarship has shown that the different sections of a gospel passage were often written at different times and their juxtaposition may be a matter of chance. But coming to a passage in faith, we take it that divine inspiration brought the sections together, and therefore look for the inner logic linking them, and also linking the individual sayings. This inner logic is then a Word of God for us. 

I suggest the following logic in this passage: 

1. The basic theme of the passage is expressed in the three sayings in verses 43 to 48. Using different images they all say that in order to "enter into life" we must from time to time make the painful choice to renounce something that is very dear to us.
2. Making this choice sets us free is two ways:
a) from pettiness, illustrated by contrasting attitudes of the disciple John who is not free and Jesus who is (verses 38-40);

b) from ego-centredness, as a result of which we can give ourselves totally to the cause of the "little ones"

- positively: we are deeply touched by those who show them the smallest sign of compassion, e.g. "give a cup of water"; we affirm that "they will most certainly have their reward (verse 41);

- negatively: we are extremely angry against those who put obstacles which bring them down - "they would be better thrown into the sea with a great millstone round their necks (verse 42).

 Making the connection in this way reminds us that Jesus never gave abstract teachings. His teachings are always his reflections on his personal spiritual journey. Correspondingly, we who receive those teachings see in them the story of his life.

Verse 42 is a precious jewel in that it repudiates conclusively the error of contrasting the "vengeful God" of the Old Testament with the "loving God" of the New. This false opposition has bedevilled Catholic spirituality for many centuries and continues to do so today. Both Testaments reveal the one true God who is passionately committed to the cause of his lowly people. Woe to those who keep them down in any way whatsoever! Far from wanting to "curb his anger" (or asking the Blesseed Virgin Mary to do it for us!) we enter into his anger (as Mary did in her Magnificat).

We must be careful therefore not to "interpret" Jesus' words in a way which downplays his passion - what our Catholic tradition has called his "righteous indignation". God's passionate commitment to the poor spells salvation for us all, even those of us who are oppressors - we will be brought low and so be lifted up.

We must identify the "obstacles" referred to by Jesus, starting form our experience. We think of the various things in the world today which prevent the lowly from realizing their full potential - the lack of material goods, of opportunities for education and health, of credit facilities; the lack of a sense of self-worth, of access to sources of grace, spiritual formation. The "obstacles" can be put by individuals or they can be embedded in the culture (English society recognized recently that it suffers from "institutional racism"). They may be caused by selfishness or by social and economic structures.

Verses 43 - 48 contain dramatic language which we must enter into, getting a feel for the painful choices we must make. We also enter fully into the two possibilities open to us, allowing them to come alive for us - "life" on the one hand, "hell" on the other. Experience (our own or that of people whose lives have touched us) will reveal the meaning of "the fire that does not go out" and "the worm that does not die." 

Reflection 

Two aspects of what might be called worldly thinking are challenged in the first and second readings. It is often the case that people with power and authority will guard it jealously and exercise it in a way which promotes their status more than it actually serves others. It is this behaviour which is shown to be at odds with what God wants in the Book of Numbers. Joshua has to learn that leadership is about service and Moses as a true leader has the humility to teach him. So too in the Letter of James the worldly view that wealth brings freedom to live our lives exactly as we would like is knocked on the head. We are only travellers and we should always live with an eye to our final destination. 

Homily Notes 

1. 'Inclusiveness' is a modern virtue! We are told of the importance of 'inclusive language,' sales people and politicians stress that all references to people must be 'inclusive': we are this, we are that, and we are moving forward. As soon as any person or group is not 'in the loop' or consulted or mentioned, then there is trouble. Every decision must be inclusive because if someone or group is excluded, then there will be trouble. In this simple world nice people are inclusive and nasty people are exclusive. But this desire to be inclusive is often only a facade, a marketing ploy, or formulaic adherence to political correctness.
2. 'Exclusiveness' seems also to be virtue! A chic, expensive restaurant where people want to be seen is an 'exclusive restaurant' — 'exclusive' is an adjective of quality and approval. 'An exclusive holiday destination' is where only a few, 'the better people' — just like us, go. In an exclusive resort there will be no riff-raff! An 'exclusive offer' for this or that comes with every postal delivery: it means we, just a few of us, are special. Unlike the great-unwashed mass of humanity, we appreciate such an exclusive opportunity and, indeed, being the special sort of people we are, we deserve this exclusive offer. Exclusiveness is even a desirable quality in tinned fish: 'It is the fish John West rejects that make John West salmon the best.'

3. Exclusion as a tool within society is deeply programmed into us. The tribe is defined by the people who-do-not-belong. Then they become'the others' and because they are not 'with us,' they are opposite us, and so they can easily be seen as opposed to us, and a threat. The others must be kept in place, they must be controlled, excluded from power, made subject to us and, if necessary, be destroyed. Exclusiveness is ideal as a means of making us united, but then can often destroy us in the conflicts and wars that it makes possible. How many leaders down the centuries who, when they found themselves without any positive vision with which to lead a people, turned to exclusiveness and preached the fear of others, and held sway by the threat of the others.
4. We can see this demonising of 'the others,' the pernicious attitude that only 'we' are OK / saved / normal, in the way countries are run (e.g. apartheid), in the way churches are run (e.g. sectarianism), or how some club or association is run (there must be careful 'screening' of who joins the residents' association lest the area's value be undermined). We see it at work in today's gospel: someone was doing the same things as the disciples, but because the person was not inside the group, then he was a threat; therefore he was to be stopped.

5. The reply of Jesus clearly shocked them: he who is not against us is for us. This is the very opposite of exclusiveness, this is true inclusiveness — not simply a facade to make an impression. This is the inclusiveness that is based in the infinity of God's goodness and love, and it is that openness and generosity that we are called to imitate.

6. Sadly, it was just too shocking for the disciples, and the record of the churches ever since has not been very honourable. It shocked the first followers because it was reversed in Matthew (12:30) to become: 'He who is not with me is against me!' Matthew wanted a neat little world where people 'knew where they stood' and if they were not with Jesus, then they must be against him. Matthew's clarity is all too human; Mark's statement could only come from someone who fully embraced the world with love. And, the church has been closer to Matthew than to Mark: we are very good at noting who does not belong, who should be excluded from communion, who is to be seen as a threat. Equally, we have been very good at dividing up the Body of Christ into exclusivist sections: clergy — lay; those with 'authority' and those who are supposed to be led. An inclusive love that sees each Christian, indeed each human, as someone called by God to participate in the growth of the kingdom seems utopian. Yet, it is just such a communion of love that we, as the church, are to model to faction-riven humanity.

7. Today's gospel calls all of us to examine our behaviour. Does it reflect inclusive love: anyone who is not against us is with us; or, is it that all too human exclusivist vision: anyone who is not with us is against us?

8. In that shift in perspective lies the difference between religious observance as an aspect of human life and true discipleship of Jesus.
 
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Prayer Reflection

Lord, we thank you for great moments of grace
when we decide to renounce something that is precious
in order to be true to a higher value:
- take a lower paying job in order to have quality time for our family;
- terminate a relationship that is destroying our marriage;
- refuse a post in the workplace which would compromise our integrity;
- accept that our marriage is destroying us and move on;
- lose an election rather than appeal to racism;
- take the risk of confronting authority in the Church.

Before making the decision, it seems impossible,
almost like cutting off a hand or a foot or tearing out an eye;
but once we make the choice, everything flows spontaneously,
we just know that it is better to enter into life crippled
or lame or with one eye,
rather than continue living in hell,
being burnt up by fire that cannot be put out,
and eaten by a worm that does not die.

Now we find that we have become free of spirit,
we are no longer worried about whether other people are one of us,
or whether we are personally popular or influential.
As long as the devils of racism, sexism and elitism are driven out,
we don't stop those who are doing it,
we know that those who are not against what we stand for are for us.
We feel an overwhelming compassion for the little ones of the world,
Jesus' special people,
we will do anything to reward those who give them even a cup of water,
and feel anger at those who put obstacles which bring them down. .

Lord, we thank you that so often in our time you have sent us someone
who was not one of us but cast out the demons which afflicted our community:
-Gandhi preached the non-violence of Jesus;
- Marxist atheists put us believers to shame in their commitment to the poor;
- warring communities in our country were brought to the negotiating table by foreigners;
- the World Council of Churches committed itself to ecumenism long before our church joined in;
- the biblical renewal arose among other Christian churches.

Some people tried to stop them, but you brought them to realize
that no one who works a miracle in your name is likely to speak evil against you,
and that those who are not against you are for you.
Lord, remind us that the poor don't need long speeches or grand gestures;
what they want is to experience that they belong to you
and therefore are entitled to have a cup of water to drink.

Lord, we pray that your church throughout the world will not be afraid
to renounce the things that give us security,
- customs and rituals that have sprung up over the centuries;
- large numbers;
- beautiful churches;
- prestigious health and educational institutions;
- the patronage of the powerful.

We pray that once we recognize that any of these things is an obstacle
bringing down little ones who have faith,
we will not be afraid to throw it into the sea with a great millstone around it.
It may be something that is as precious to us as a hand, a foot or an eye,
but we must not be afraid to tear it out
so that we can enter into the glorious life of being your church,
experience your Kingdom here on earth,
rather than living far from your presence,
burning with desires that can never be satisfied,
eaten by the worm of jealousy that never dies.

Lord, we think with great compassion of those who are paying the penalty
for wrong choices made earlier in their lives;
- parents who were afraid to give up a high lifestyle in order to give time to their children
and are now consigned to senior citizens' homes with no one to visit them;
- public figures who compromised their integrity in the search for power and were eventually discarded by the powerful;
- those who feel isolated because they neglected their neighbours who were poor.
Deliver them from the hell of loneliness and remorse they now live in,
the fire that never goes out and the worm that does not die.

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Illustrations: 

1)    "Could you not have tolerated him for just one meal?"    

There is legend told about Abraham, the grand patriarch of the Jews, in the Mideast. According to the legend, Abraham always held off eating his breakfast each morning until a hungry person came along to share it with him. One day an old man came along, and, of course, Abraham invited him to share his breakfast with him. However, when Abraham heard the old man say a pagan blessing over his food, he jumped up and ordered the old man out from his table, and from   his  house.  Almost immediately, God   spoke to Abraham.  Abraham! Abraham! I have been supplying that unbeliever with food every day for the past eighty years. Could  you not have  tolerated him for just one meal?"  We are all children  of God,  and,  hence, we  have  to  love  and  tolerate  everyone,  as explained in todays first reading and  the gospel. (Jack McArdle). 

2)    Gandhi,  Mandela, Dorothy  Day  and  Martin  Luther  King Jr.

With our fallen human nature, we fall victim to the evil tendency of trying to control the Spirit of God   by our intolerance.    Our own arrogance insists that another is not qualified to speak on justice or morality because of his/her lower educational qualifications, low-grade lifestyle, humble social background or race.  As a society, we also tend to question peoples legitimacy especially when they challenge us.

Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu leader in India, challenged the colonial  rule of  the  British  Empire  over  India  with  his  principles  of  peace and non-violence.   But the intolerant British Empire, initially dismissing him as a silly, half-naked fakir, tried to silence him by imprisonment.  But later they found, to their horror, that  the  entire  nation was behind him in its fight  for freedom from colonial rule.  

Nelson Mandela was ignored by the minority ruling class and  was jailed  for many years as a radical because of his option for the poor and  the oppressed  in South  Africa.   

Dorothy Day was imprisoned in the U. S.    for her beliefs  and   was accused  of  being  a  Communist.     Martin   Luther King Jr. challenged a nation and  its policy of discrimination.  He was continually under surveillance by the FBI and  was accused of inciting sedition and  of being unpatriotic.   There are  Christians  who  still  look  on  believers  belonging  to  non- Christian  religions  and  on  members  of  Christian  denominations  different  from their  own  as  heretics  and   semi-pagans.    In  todays  gospel,  Jesus  gives  his disciples a lesson in Christian tolerance along with  a warning against jealousy and   scandal.

3)    Intolerance in the  blood: 

In Belfast, Ireland, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi were engaged in a heated theological discussion.  Suddenly an angel appeared in their midst and said to them, God sends you His blessings.   Make one wish for peace and your wish will be fulfilled by the Almighty.

The  Protestant  minister  said,  Let  every  Catholic  disappear  from  our  lovely island.  Then peace will reign supreme. 

The priest said, Let there not be a single Protestant left on our sacred Irish soil. That will bring peace to this island.
And what about you, Rabbi? said the angel. Do you have no wish of your own?
No, said the rabbi.  Just attend to the  wishes of these two  gentlemen and  I Shall be well pleased. 

4)    One person armed with the Gospel of peace can change the world.

Telemachus did. He was a monk who lived in the 5th century. He felt God saying to him, "Go to Rome." He was in a cloistered monastery but he put his possessions in a sack and set out for Rome. When he arrived in the city, people were thronging in the streets. He asked why all the excitement and was told that this was the day that the gladiators would be fighting in the coliseum, the day of the games, the circus. He thought to himself, "Four centuries after Christ and they are still killing each other, for enjoyment?" He ran to the coliseum and heard the gladiators saying, "Hail to Caesar, we die for Caesar" and he thought, "this isn't right." He jumped over the railing and went out into the middle of the field, got between two gladiators, and tried to stop them. The crowd became enraged and stoned the peacemaker to death.

When the Emperor of Rome, Honorius, heard about the monk he declared him a Christian martyr and put an end to the games. Legend has it that the very last Gladiatorial game was the one in which Telemachus died.

5)    Each of us has moments, choices, circumstances in our lives

That act as a watershed - experiences dividing our life into everything "before" and everything "after." The event doesn't have to be devastating or dramatic. Sometimes it is joyful and exhilarating. Sometimes it is a quiet realization. Sometimes it takes decades for us to even determine just when that moment occurred.
You have a parent or a sibling die.
You are the first in your family to go away to college.
You enlist in the military.
You get married.
You become a parent.
You win the lottery.
You declare bankruptcy.
You have a heart attack . . . but you wake up.

Whatever it may be, the event changes your perspective, changes your life's trajectory, changes your dreams, and changes your goals. All is different now.
 
"Before" you lived in one world.

"After" you live in a different world.

A different world is what Jesus kept trying to describe to his disciples. A world so completely topsy-turvy to their experience they found it incomprehensible...

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 6)    Changing the Signs

William Barclay, a British theologian, tells the following story in his commentary on this Biblical text. He told a story about someone changing signs. That is, at an intersection of the road, one sign would point to the city of Seattle and another sign would point to the city of Tacoma. And the boy wondered to himself: How many people could I send down the wrong road if I changed the signs? Your very life is a sign post with a sign on it. Are you sending people down the wrong road or the right road?
 
Edward F. Markquart, Millstones

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 7)    I Love You More than Salt 

An ancient king once asked his three daughters how much they loved him. One daughter said she loved him more than all the gold in the world. One said she loved him more than all the silver in the world. The youngest daughter said she loved him more than salt. The king was not pleased with this answer. But the cook overheard the conversation, so the next day he prepared a good meal for the king, but left out the salt. The food was so insipid that the king couldn't eat it. Then he understood what his daughter meant. He understood the value of salt.

In the ancient world salt was a valuable and scarce commodity. It was used as currency in some countries even into modern times. During an invasion of Ethiopia, in the late 19th century, Italian soldiers found blocks of salt stored in bank vaults along with other familiar forms of currency. Jesus was paying his disciples a compliment when he called them salt.

 King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com

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8)    The Fellowship of the Bearers of Cold Water

An old man named Calvin had lived a good life as a farmer for years. One day an evangelist came to the community, and, in the course of his stay, visited Calvin and asked him what denomination he was. Calvin answered the question like this: "When my grain gets ready for selling, after I've harvested it and packaged it, I can take it to town by any one of three roads " the river road, the dirt road, or the highway. But when I get my grain to town and go to the buyer to sell him what I have, he never looks at me and asks, ˜Calvin, which road did you take to get your grain to town?' What he does do is ask me if my grain is any good."  

Friend, is your grain good - the grain of your discipleship? That's all that really matters. When we get to Heaven we will probably find some (Roman Catholics) and some (Baptists) and some (Presbyterians). And they'll be just as surprised to see us as we will to see them. But we will all belong to just one fellowship. Let's call it the Fellowship of the Bearers of Cold Water. We will all be people who have lived out our discipleship through acts of kindness to others.

King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
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9)    The Cumulative Effect of Sin 

Time-lapse photography compresses a series of events into one picture. Such a photo appeared in an issue of National Geographic. Taken from a Rocky Mountain peak during a heavy thunderstorm, the picture captured the brilliant lightning display that had taken place throughout the storm's duration. The time-lapse technique created a fascinating, spaghetti-like web out of the individual bolts. In such a way, our sin presents itself before the eyes of God. Where we see only isolated or individual acts, God sees the overall web of our sinning. What may seem insignificant -- even sporadic -- to us and passes with hardly a notice creates a much more dramatic display from God's panoramic viewpoint. The psalmist was right when he wrote, "Who can discern his [one's own] errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me." (Psalm 19:12-1
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10) Designed to Be Lived Up 

Ted Engstrom of World Vision fame tells how one day he was cleaning out an old desk drawer. He found a flashlight he hadn't used in a year. He turned it on but there was no light. He shook it, and then he unscrewed one end to release what were probably dead batteries. The batteries wouldn't come out, but finally, after some effort, he shook them loose. What a mess he found! Corroded batteries with liquid acid seeping all over the mechanism - all because he hadn't used the flashlight regularly!

Batteries are designed to be turned on, to be used, not neglected or ignored. What you and I refuse to use we will surely lose. We're meant to he turned on, too. Our gifts are to be used! Our lives are not meant to be "waited out" but to be lived up! Are you and I living up to the gifts and talents God has given us? What kind of commitment do we have to ourselves and to the graces within us? 

Richard W. Patt, Partners in the Impossible, CSS Publishing Co., Inc.

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11) Where to Put the Pies
 

I was in a small rural church one time that had a major dispute about where the pies should be placed in the kitchen prior to serving them for the annual turkey supper. One woman actually left the church community because several new comers to the church had convinced the rest of the women working in the kitchen that it would be more efficient to put the pies on the counter beside the sink instead of the counter next to the refrigerator. "It's not the right way to do it", she said. "We've never done it that way before, and I am not going to be part of doing it that way now. I won't have any part of that kind of thing. Those new people are going to ruin this church. They don't know anything. They aren't even from around here."

 

 12) Sound familiar to anyone?  

The apostle John came up to Jesus one day. "Jesus", he said, "I was walking down the road with the rest of the disciples, and we saw someone casting out demons in your name. We tried to stop him because we don't know who he is; we tried to stop him because he's not one of us.

Richard J. Fairchild, Working Together
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 13) Are We Askew, Too? 

One pastor tells about listening to his father tell a story about a neighbor whose barn had burned down. The entire community gathered to help rebuild it. His father and some other men were told to saw the rafters. They first cut a rafter and then traced around it with a pencil and cut another one. They based the third rafter on the second the fourth on the third and so on. What they didn't take into account was the width of the pencil mark. Each rafter was one pencil mark wider than the one before. After a while, this can add up to quite a difference. By lunch time they looked at the barn and discovered it was going up at a very strange angle because they had deviated from the original standard. Do you not sense that our barn is a little askew today, too?  

King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com
 

 14) Feeding Sin

In 1939, a coast guard vessel was cruising the Canadian Arctic when the men spotted a polar bear stranded on an ice floe. It was quite a novelty for the seamen, who threw the bear salami, peanut butter, and chocolate bars. Then they ran out of the food. Unfortunately, the polar bear hadn't run out of appetite, so he proceeded to board their vessel. The men on ship were terrified and opened the fire hoses on the bear. The polar bear loved it and raised his paws in the air to get the water under his armpits. We don't know how they did it, but eventually they forced the polar bear to return to his ice pad--but not before teaching these seamen a horrifying lesson about feeding polar bears.

Some people make the same mistake with sin that these sailors nearly made with the polar bear...