Since I’ve been ordained a deacon, most of the energy that once went into blog posts now goes into homilies. Then it occurred to me that I might just post an occasional homily and kill two birds with one stone. Here’s the one I preached today at St. Paul’s in Cambridge, MA. It’s written more for listening than for reading, but the basic point survives. Enjoy…
Can we see the Pharisee in today’s Gospel as a ‘normal’ person with ‘normal’ attitudes? And, as a result, can we see Christ’s disapproval of the Pharisee’s attitudes as an invitation to a discipleship that goes beyond conventional morality? This, to my mind, is the imaginative challenge that our Gospel poses. The problem is that our sensibilities in Christian Culture have been so long tutored by these and similar passages that the Pharisee now seems cartoonish. We can hardly imagine consciously bragging, comparing, and condemning so openly. So it’s easy to give ourselves a pass.
In order to help us approach the Pharisee sympathetically, then, I thought I might just share a few findings from mental health professionals on the self-perception of ‘normal’ adults who enjoy moderate to high self-esteem. According to a large body of research, ‘normal’ folks to tend to:
- process and recall success better than failure;
- attribute their successes to themselves but their failures to environmental factors;
- evaluate their negative traits as trivial and their positive traits as significant;
- see their faults as ‘common’ and strengths as ‘special’ and ‘distinctive’;
- see negative traits as less descriptive of themselves than of the average person.
- see negative traits as less descriptive of their family and friends than of the average person.
Logically, it stands to reason that the majority of people can’t be above average. Hence, though the opposite was long believed, a large body of research now suggests that confident, cheerful persons are not those who are most grounded in reality, those who serenely accept with both their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, they are those who develop an uncanny ability to filter data and twist reality in a self-promoting direction.
The same study does, by the way, identify a group of people who have more balanced self-appraisals. They turn out to be the moderately depressed.
The connection to the Pharisees should by now be clear. Whether they consciously admit it or not, most ‘normal’ people have an inner life that thrives off comparison and the unconscious belief that they’re better than other people.
And so the ‘normal’ or ‘pharisaical’ human condition of every age presents us with a dilemma. Left to our own devices, we must choose either Truth or Life, either a grim honesty or a superficial happiness. But we can’t have both. Our frail sense of self-worth can’t long risk an unflinching gaze into the darkness and violence within our selves and within our world. And even if we choose to look away, we know that our happiness remains precarious so long as it rests on illusions. Pretty bleak, right?
But when we search our hearts, we know that there would be a solution to our dilemma: to come upon a light brighter than our darkness, a love stronger than our violence. We know in small ways what it is to come into the presence of a person who loves before he or she judges. We can instantly take off our masks and let down our defenses. The whole nation of Israel nation knew what this was like. Because she received an election unique among all the nations, she could afford to preserve the most unsparing and unromantic record of national follies known to history.
But love was not finally victorious until Christ, Christ who loved us first, Christ who loved us while we were still sinners.
And because Christ loved us while we were still sinners, the admission of sin is no longer crushing. It is healing. For if we believe that Christ’s love is stronger than our sins, then to explore the depth of our sinfulness is to explore the even greater depth of divine love. And, to explore the depths of divine love is to better appreciate the darkness of sin—since our sins have been committed against so loving a Father. And so the experience of sin and the experience of divine love grow together. They are directly proportional, as the tax collector saw; not inversely proportion, as the Pharisee feared.
Though we often hear about the horrors of Catholic guilt, the mainstream of the Church’s tradition has never advised dwelling on sins for their own sake. That way lies madness—or at least moderate depression. Rather, it has always been to look through our sins to the greater mercy of God. The earliest monks used to interpret the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn” in this sense. Novices were expected to spend time mourning for their sins until such meditation produced the healing tears of repentance. But this was not an exercise in masochism. It led to beatitude. The tears of repentance brought refreshment, healing, freedom from anxiety, and the unshakable blessedness that replaces shallow and fragile happiness.
This is the awareness that the sacramental confession is meant to promote—though it is sadly underused. This is the awareness that the Mass impresses upon us at the penitential rite. This is the awareness that Jesus praises in the tax collector today: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” As we approach the Eucharistic table, then, where the bread and wine are transformed into the stuff of divinity, let us pray that God transform our sins as well—into occasions for savoring His mercy.