24 October 2010

Are We Self-Righteous?

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 24 October 2010

Readings: Sirach 35:12-14; Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

The Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector begins and ends with the lesson clearly articulated. It begins with the purpose of the parable: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” And ends with the saying: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It is a commentary against self-righteousness. However, to label the Pharisees as a bunch of self-righteous zealots and tax collectors as misunderstood sinners would be to miss the point.

Despite their negative portrayal in the Gospels, the Pharisees enjoy a generally good reputation among the Jews. They were teachers and leaders in the community. During turbulent times in the history of the Jewish people, they kept the faith and heroically preserved their cherished traditions. Many of them live exemplary lives, faithful to the Mosaic law.

The tax collectors, on the other hand, were regarded as corrupt and dishonest. The reputation was not entirely unmerited. They were agents of the Roman oppressors. Thus, they considered as traitors. Most likely they would justify their betrayal as just a job. Many of them even cheated their countrymen of the taxes they paid.

Imagine the shock, therefore, of the audience when Jesus reversed their traditional images. The Pharisee came out self-righteous and the tax collector justified in the eyes of God.

The parable didn’t say the Pharisee was a bad person, only that his prayer indicated he was being self-righteous. Nor did it say whether the tax collector consummated his repentance to total conversion or that he went back eventually to his old ways. The point is between the two, the tax collector got it right for he opened his heart with great humility and honesty and was therefore able to receive God’s grace. The Pharisee was so much distracted by his accomplishments, his bloated ego and hardened heart prevented grace from coming in.

1. When we are self-righteous, we think too highly of ourselves, and less of others.

The Pharisee exhibited a “holier than thou” attitude. He stands by a distorted idea of holiness and justification. But self-righteousness is not limited only to people of faith.

There are “wiser than thou” types. Some use their expertise or experience to project that they are better than others, or that they don’t need to listen to ordinary folks. Think of lawyers, doctors, teachers, even priests and parents, who wouldn’t listen and think their judgments in line with their respective fields should stand unquestioned.

There are “busier than thou” people. They are those who establish their air of superiority from their amount of contribution to society, or assignments of responsibility in an organization, or how much they bring to the dinner table.

There are those who are “happier than thou”. They think that for as long as they are kind and fair to others, they can make their own rules and chase after fleeting joys. They may even sincerely pity people of faith for being uptight, and moralistic. They subscribe to a distorted view of freedom, responsibilities and righteousness.

There are others still: the “more victim than thou”, the “more politically-correct than thou”, the “more socially-conscious than thou”, etc.

2. When we are self-righteous, we define righteousness in our own terms, not according to God’s terms.

God wants us to be saved. But this cannot happen, if we don’t think we need saving. Self-righteousness leads us to conjure the illusion of self-sufficiency. This is how God wants us to be saved:

First, He gives us His love. We feel His love in the sun and rain, and the air that we breathe. He shows us His love through the unconditional love we receive from family, friends, and loved ones. And, of course, He gave us His Son.

Second, He shows us forgiveness for the many times that we are ungrateful and betray His love and others who love and trust us as well. It is important that we know we are forgiven so we can grow and move on to greater things without the burden of guilt and shame.

Third, He leads us to fullness of life, which is what salvation really is about and the purpose of our existence.

3. When we are self-righteous, we stop desiring to live life fully.

Some people just stop wanting to grow. They have become comfortable with just the first stages of God’s plan: they just like the feeling of being loved or forgiven but don’t exert enough effort to be better and live life fully. Self-righteous people feel they have done enough and insist on their entitlements.

In contrast, true righteousness is an altogether different thing. In 2 Tim 4,7-8, St. Paul writes with confident faith and humility:

“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.”

Humility is the balm that heals our self-righteousness. When we are winning, it is expressed in magnanimity. When we are down, it manifests in acceptance. It is acknowledging the truth about us, and striving to see ourselves the way God sees us. Thus, when we are humble we are not just down to earth, we stand on solid ground.

I would like to end with this assurance from Sir 35,17-18 on how the Lord favors the humble:

“The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.”

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