It is not as though he had done anything wrong. He had not lost his master’s money in bad investments or squandered it in dissolute living. He had not run off with the wealth entrusted to him. In fact, he had the whole sum close at hand, safely hidden in the ground. No, the problem was something quite different: although he had done no wrong, he had also failed to do good. Therefore that servant received a stern rebuke upon his master’s return: “You wicked and slothful servant!” (Mt 25:26)
Wicked and slothful. We do not typically associate sloth with wickedness. It strikes us as a flaw or shortcoming, perhaps, but not much more. We might roll our eyes at the idler, but we hardly consider him wicked. Yet sloth is indeed one of the seven deadly sins.
As each vice is the distortion of a legitimate natural inclination, so sloth distorts and misdirects our desire for rest. Work is a primordial duty, a way of participating in God’s own work. That imitation of God requires also that we rest at times. Hence, the third commandment. Sloth leads us away from proper rest. It makes us seek rest inordinately — either at the wrong time or in the wrong way.
Sloth is not simply laziness, because rest is not just doing nothing. Proper rest is re-creation, the kind of relaxation that revitalizes and reinvigorates. Not sitting in front of the TV or computer for hours. Not “vegging out.” And our ultimate rest is in God, Who makes all things new (cf. Rev 21:5). Sloth is thus a kind of sadness, a paralyzing sorrow about the effort needed for the things of God, about the demands of the spiritual life. It avoids particularly the labor associated with our duties toward God. The traditional word for it, acedia, means not-caring. Sloth is yawning in the face of God and, in effect, telling Him that we don’t care and can’t be bothered.
As a capital vice, sloth always leads to other sins. Resentment of God, for example, precisely because He will not allow us to rest in anything other than Him. He becomes a nuisance, Who pursues us constantly to rest in Him. Saint Thomas observes the irony that the slothful resent even the Sabbath, the day of rest. Because they want to rest on their own terms, and the Sabbath is meant for rest in God. Notice in our slothful culture the ever decreasing sense of the Sabbath – more buying and selling, more work being done, more running errands…and less time with God.
Sloth leads to busyness. Not working but just running around doing things…with little being actually accomplished. The slothful will use anything to avoid spiritual exercise. So, like an adolescent spending more energy avoiding his homework than would be required to do it, the slothful man fills his day with activities, lest he hear God’s call to prayer and that ultimate rest. One of sloth’s surest symptoms is the absurd phrase, “I’m too busy to pray.”
Sloth leads to impurity. It was while he was idle, away from the work of the war, that King David fell into his affair with Bathsheba. We see this phenomenon quite painfully in our culture’s addiction to pornography. It is boredom, not vibrancy, that leads to pornography use. A man desires rest but resents the effort needed for healthy recreation or prayer. So he slouches into what promises comfort, pleasure, and rest. In the end it is a lie, and the man finds himself ashamed…and not rested.
Sloth feeds off of prosperity. Those with the means to be free of worldly cares run the risk of not having any other-worldly cares either. The comfort that wealth brings can numb us to the demands of the soul or at least make us resent any effort required for holiness. There is a reason the first beatitude is about the poor in spirit and the first evangelical counsel is poverty: nothing breaks us of sloth’s “I’m bored” mentality quite like a sense of our own nothingness.
If sloth leads to negligence of our spiritual duties, we should counter by praying for a greater diligence about the same. Diligence comes from the Latin diligere — to love. When we love someone, we diligently seek him out, do good for him, find out more about him, etc. Our Lady’s love for the Lord made her diligent about His commands: “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah” (Lk 1:39). Pope Francis has called her “Our Lady of Promptness” precisely because of her diligence, her swift attention to the things of God.
As March is traditionally devoted to Saint Joseph, we should find in him a great example and intercessor. At all times he had before him a reminder of those for whom he worked, and with whom he rested. We can hardly think that he dawdled or dragged his heals in his labors and duties towards Jesus and Mary. In his relaxation as well, he was mindful of their presence – which made his rest all the sweeter. He is a powerful intercessor in keeping us on task at work…and at rest.
“You wicked and slothful servant!” What terrible words to hear when we enter eternity. Let us pray to be freed from sloth with these words of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.
This post is the fifth in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia