This list comes mostly from the Old Testament. We can find it today in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (no. 1867):
- Willful murder, referred to as “the blood of Abel” in Genesis 4;
- The sin of Sodom, told in Genesis 18 and 19;
- The cry of the Israelites in Egypt, in Exodus 3;
- Oppression of the poor as warned against in Exodus 22; and
- Injustice toward laborers, which is well explained in Deuteronomy 24 and the Letter of James (chap. 5).
Some sources will only list four of these sins, since the one about the Israelites in Egypt is completely past history, while the others can still be — and are — committed today.
When we do hear about “sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance,” the focus can fall on “the sin of Sodom.” The Bible tells us that Sodom and its sister city Gomorrah (as well as three other cities collectively known in ancient times as Pentapolis) were destroyed by God. Only Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his daughters were saved by angels. (Lot’s wife met with tragedy because she did not obey the command not to look back.)
Today, the “sin of Sodom” is most often referred to as homosexual in nature, though it is actually a bit more complex than that. The men of Sodom were intent upon attacking Lot’s guests — those angels — and “to know them,” which is a general euphemism in the Bible for sexual relations. When their demand was refused, the men of Sodom threatened violence. (Of course, the angels took care of matters by striking the attackers with a blinding light.)
Sodom’s sin certainly was sexual in nature, but it was also about violence and attacking immigrants and ignoring the dignity of other human beings. The Sodomites forgot one of the central rules of Middle Eastern society — to treat everyone as an honored guest. It has long been considered a blessing to welcome strangers and to care for their needs — just as Abraham welcomed God into his tent (Genesis 18).
As such, the bigger picture of the story deals with injustice and the misery brought about by self-centered desires and ambitions. That’s the core of the “sins that cry out to heaven”: murder, injustice and oppression.
Today, we hear less about “sins that cry out to heaven,” but we do hear about the dignity of human beings. In the first of the modern papal encyclicals to deal with social justice, Pope Leo XIII in 1891 wrote, that “some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: …. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition” (Rerum Novarum, 3).
“Misery and wretchedness” were the lot of the mistreated foreigners, widows, orphans, murder victims and the sexually abused of biblical times. And they remain the lot of the weakest members of society to this day.
This Sunday, we hear the prophet Amos warn against ignoring the poor, and Jesus does the same in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Amos said, “Woe to you complacent in Zion,” who were described as ignoring the poor to pursue their own personal pleasures.
The Fathers of Vatican II pointed to the need to counter this tendency in our own society and to replace it with a “reverence for human beings.”
In “The Church in the Modern World,” the bishops said that “a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, ‘As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me’ (Mt 25:40).” (Lumen gentium, no. 27).
Today, when we read the list of “the sins that cry out to heaven,” we need to compare this largely Old Testament list to events happening in the world around us. Then we can follow Paul’s advice to Timothy: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Tm 6:11).
Sources: Rerum Novarum; Lumen gentium; Catechism of the Catholic Church; U.S. bishops’ social teaching at www.usccb.org; catholicculture.org