Summary: Sloth is a sluggishness of soul or boredom because of the exertion necessary for the performance of a good work. Are we guilty of it?

In the rain forests of Central and South America dwells a small ugly looking mammal called a sloth. This little creature is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. When it moves—which is rarely, since it spends 20 hours a day sleeping—it travels at a top speed of 0.15 mph.

When we think of the sin of sloth, the image of this creature is what probably comes to mind, hanging from a tree branch with its three toes, or possibly that of a beer guzzling slob sprawled out on a couch in front of the television set in his boxers with everything around him going to pot. The sin of sloth, however, does not necessarily mean inactivity, which is sometimes necessary, but encompasses a host of things from being lethargic to being too busy.

Fr. John Hardon, in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary, defines sloth as the “sluggishness of soul or boredom because of the exertion necessary for the performance of a good work. The good work may be a corporal task, such as walking; or a mental exercise, such as writing; or a spiritual duty, such as prayer.” The definition provides a good place to start.

Physical sloth

We are physically slothful when, like the three-toed sloth, we begin to do things in slow motion or not do them at all. P. Evans in The Man Behind the Mask tells of this incident that reveals a truly slothful person. One afternoon, the doorbell rang in Peter Sellers’ London flat. As Sellers was busy in his study, his wife Anne went to the door, where she was handed a telegram. The message? “Bring me a cup of coffee. Peter.”

In western nations the cost of labor is so high that not many people have servants to help them. Not so in the east, especially Asian countries, where labor is so cheap, some families employ two or even three servants to do household chores. If this frees them to better utilize their time, that is fine, but not if it just serves to make them lazy.

Here is a passage from the book of Proverbs: “How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior” (Proverbs 6:9-11).

Here is another: “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).

This instruction may have inspired the famous Greek author Aesop to tell his well known tale of the Ant and the Grasshopper.

The Ant worked diligently all summer working up a sweat as it gathered grain under the blazing sun. His neighbor, the Grasshopper, however, just spent his time singing and laughing at the Ant’s labors. Then winter came and with it came a scarcity of food. The Grasshopper had nothing to eat. He peeped in into the Ant’s house and saw mounds of grain stacked in one corner.

“Could you please spare me some food,” pleaded the Grasshopper. “I don’t have any.”

“Why?” asked the Ant. “What did you do all summer?”

“Oh, I sang,” said the Grasshopper.

“You sang,” said the Ant. “Now you dance!”

The Ant was perhaps not very Christian in its attitude, but the main moral of the story is obvious. We reap according to what we sow.

God has given us bodies and we need to look after them by getting proper rest, eating the right things, and ensuring we have enough exercise. This isn’t so that we have perfect bodies, but that we have fit bodies so that we have the energy to do the things we are required to do. This last statement contains a truth vital to our understanding of the sin of sloth, because although sloth is generally revealed in sluggishness, it can also disguise itself in busyness; we may not always be required to do the things we do. A good example of this “busyness” can be found in Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, and a dear friend of Jesus.

One day, when Jesus was in Bethany, Martha invited him to her home (see Luke 10:38-42). She promptly went into the kitchen and busied herself with cooking something for him, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to the things he had to say. Martha wasn’t too pleased with this and finally, unable to contain herself any longer, went out to Jesus and said to him: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

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