Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Repentant Sinner knows He needs God

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

OK, let’s be honest. What are you thinking after you heard this famous parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector? I guess that many of us who had listened to today’s gospel would have said in our hearts, “Thank God, I’m not like the Pharisee.” Most likely, we will naturally and easily identify with the humble tax-collector, and not the pious, self-righteous Pharisee. In fact when the Pharisee is mentioned, we can already vividly picture the familiar face of a contemporary and thinking,  “Hmm, this sounds like so-and-so.”  But the moment we do that, we’ve fallen directly into the trap Jesus had set for us here - I have become the very one I detest. What an irony, that it is so easy to read this parable in a self-congratulatory way! Faced with two characters, I naturally gravitate towards the one commended.

When comparing a Pharisee to a tax-collector, the Lord had chosen the two most opposite figures in the entire Jewish community. The Pharisee, the separated one, was held to be the best, the most righteous, the most religious, the most holy and the most godly of all men in Jewish society. Whereas the tax collector, the lap dog and agent of the hated colonisers, a profession notorious for its blatant extortion and corruption, was looked on as the worst, filthiest and traitorous scoundrel imaginable!  Then Jesus does the unimaginable – he switches their positions. The righteous is regarded as the scoundrel and the scoundrel, the righteous. You can see why, then, that Jesus’ conclusion of this parable literally stunned His audience. It was an outrageous and politically incorrect illustration to suggest that a tax collector would be justified and saved, while a Pharisee would be unforgiven and lost.

However, it is important to note that the crime of the Pharisee was not his legalism nor his righteous lifestyle. No, he was condemned because he was blinded by his own self-righteousness. This is why Pharisaism is so dangerous, because of its subtlety. Our own faults are hidden to us, whereas the faults of others are always so evident. How easy it is for us to scorn others and hold them in contempt. How natural for us to think that we are healthy, spiritually balanced and have it altogether, when in reality we are diseased, dying and far from God. What the Pharisee needed was a healthy dose of humility, which was the saving grace of the tax collector who had no doubt that he was a sinner in need of grace and mercy from God.

This humility, this acknowledgement of our utter neediness, is the heart of true repentance. “A humble and contrite heart, thou, O God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). In God’s order of justice, only those who accuse themselves of their sins and confess like common criminals can find forgiveness, just as the one with leprosy can only find healing when he runs to the nearest physician. It is only when we are condemned in our own eyes, that we find pardon.

Whether I choose to identify with the Pharisee or the publican in this story, it can get me into trouble. This is because a spirit of self-justification and self-righteousness can infect just about anyone. It does not require that I be religious or to have a spotless reputation, like the Pharisee. It only requires that I be right in my own eyes. Sinners like the tax collector can think like that too. No matter who I am, seeing myself as “right” feels pretty good. This seems to be a common cultural trait among many in today’s society, those who see no problems with their sinful lifestyle and in fact do not even recognise the sinfulness of their own actions. Just like the judgmental Pharisee, those who revel and feel comfortable in their sinful skins often disdain and even react violently against those striving to seek holiness, because the latter seems to reveal their own personal faults, just like how a mirror spotlights what we deem as non-existent blemishes in our complexion.

Most people make the common mistake of equating holiness with self-righteousness or being “holier than thou.” In contemporary times, holiness has gotten a bad reputation with many young people viewing holiness as something optional and even legalistic. To them, holiness suggests spiritual superiority. Pejorative terms, like “holey moley,” are often used to describe someone prone to exhibit hyper religiosity. The person striving to be holy is often accused of being neurotically unbalanced and would receive this unsolicited advice from others, “Don’t try to be so holy!” as if holiness was a form of disease.  Given this confusion, it is crucial to clear the fog that blurs the lines between holiness and self-righteous. Every one of us is called to holiness, we are called to be saints by virtue of our baptism. But how do we live our lives in a holy way without running the risk of being “Holier than Thou”? Holiness is not “I’m better than you.” Rather the journey towards Christ acknowledges that we are all “works in progress” as we seek to allow our maker to shape us and mould us. Being Christ-like is never about saying “I’m better than you;” it’s about saying “I love you.”

Therefore the real problem isn’t righteousness or holiness but self-righteousness. From this safe, lifted-up vantage point as a “righteous” person, I can look down on the unwashed around me, and feel good that I am not characterised by their faults. Or, as a sinful outsider, I can look at myself as being “real” and look down on the respectable folks around me and condemn them for their hypocritical “fake” religious piety, their “holier than thou” bearing, and the narrowness and legalism of their lifestyle. So the righteous look down on sinners and thank God that they are not like them. Whilst the sinners look down on the righteous and assert that they wouldn’t be caught dead being such snobs, openly suspecting it’s all a big act put on by whitewashed tombs. Slippery slopes abound on either side when our attention focuses on others or on ourselves in comparison to others, whether from the side of the Pharisee or the tax collector.

As usual, the ever-wise C.S. Lewis had his finger on the pulse of the matter here. In Mere Christianity , he wrote: “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good above all, that we are better than someone else I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.”

So then, how should we read this parable? We should read it looking only at Jesus. Not at the Pharisee. Not at the tax collector. Trying to identify with either of them in contrast to the other, leads only to spiritual pride regardless of which one I’m pointing to. But when I look at Jesus and realise that He is pointing me to God, who alone has the power to forgive me and sanctify me, then I will take the appropriate position of turning towards Him. Comparison with others will not cross my mind. In a desperation that consumes all my energies, I will find myself crying out for His word of forgiveness and mercy. My concentration will become incredibly focused, not on myself, not on others, but on the One who made me, who knows me, who speaks the truth to me, who invites me to wholeness and a life of holiness once again.

The truth is, we are all desperately in need of God’s healing and forgiveness. We are all sinners; there is no place for us to despise or condemn anyone but ourselves. What pleases God is that we bring to Him, not our ability and sufficiency, but our emptiness. What God desires is that we acknowledge our sin and need of forgiveness. God desires that we come before Him, not brimming over with foolish self-confidence, but broken in spirit, humbled by an awareness of how far we fall short. That’s the person, Jesus tells us, whom God will lift up and exalt. Not the person who thinks that God needs him, but the one who knows that he needs God.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.