Words on the Word
30. Sunday C
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-19: He who with his whole heart serves God will be accepted.
1 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18: To all those who have longed for his appearing.
Luke 18:9-14: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.
The fourth chapter of St Benedict’s Rule is called ‘Tools of good works’. In a series of maxims, Benedict tells us how to go about Christian construction: the labour of conversion. The tools are not just for monks. They make up a kit we all carry with us. We should know its contents and the use of each piece of equipment. Even an inexperienced carpenter will not tighten a loose screw with a pair of pliers or use a hammer to measure a right angle. Christians are likewise supposed to know what tools are called for in particular situations of trial and temptation.
Halfway through his list, St Benedict indicates two tools that make up a pair. They need to be applied together. The monk, he says, must ‘attribute to God, not to self, whatever good he sees in himself’. At the same time he must know that any evil he commits ‘is his own doing, to be imputed to himself’. Important here is the recognition of genuine goodness in our lives. To be a Christian is not to keep repeating, ‘I am a worm’, thinking ourselves incapable of virtue. It is not humble to look at our accomplishments as if there was no trace of good in them. The humble person, when he does good, does not say anxiously, ‘O, there’ll be sin and selfishness in this, somewhere.’ He feels a kind of jubilant astonishment and asks, ‘Really, was that me?’ He sees that, yes, it was, but not he unaided. Some greater virtue carried and perfected his own limited virtue, whose frailty he knows. At that realisation he feels joy. He responds in the only way we can when we receive a gift: he gives thanks, and his thanks become praise. ‘Great are you Lord, for you have been pleased to perform your works of power through my weakness.’
If we apply this insight to today’s Gospel, we’ll be able to make a crucial distinction. The Pharisee is not at fault for thanking God. If he has been preserved from doing evil and affirmed in doing good, he is right to be grateful. At fault is not his thanksgiving, but his comparison. Here we enter a familiar minefield. The tendency to compare ourselves favourably with others runs deep. It deals out the wages of sin in its commonest currency. We assuage our insecurities by keeping track of others’ failings. We reassure ourselves by writing off our neighbour.
Why is it so bad to judge others? Firstly, because we can’t know them well enough to reach certain conclusions about them. How can I know the despair that may drive a woman or man to commit some sin that possibly causes him or her acute moral pain? Secondly, judging others does ourselves harm. Bringing others low, I exalt myself. Instead of being thankful for the good I have received, I see it as my possession. If I see my brother sin, I do not say, ‘Terrible! Him today – me tomorrow!’ I say, ‘I’d never do that.’ My heart hardens. I become proud, cold, and before long insufferable, shutting myself off both from God’s mercy and from human friendship. For what use is God, what use are friends, to a self-sufficient, needless person? The third peril involved in judging others is the most dreadful. By condemning others, I usurp a divine privilege. I commit a sin that is Luciferian, presuming to take the place of God. The early monks, the Desert Fathers, were wary of this temptation and told a story about it. It goes like this:
Abba Isaac turned up at a monastery, saw a brother sin, and judged him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood before the door of his cell and said, ‘I will not let you enter.’ The man said, ‘What is the matter?’ The angel replied, ‘God has sent me to ask you this: Where would you have me cast the brother who sinned?’ At this Abba Isaac threw himself on the ground, saying, ‘I have sinned, forgive me!’ The angel said, ‘Get up. God has forgiven you. But take great care from now on not to judge anyone until God judges him.’
Isaac, to his credit, saw how preposterous he’d been to sit in judgement. We might aks ourselves: Would I have been equally quick to reach this insight?
To say we shouldn’t judge others is not to say we should call darkness light, light darkness. What the Gospel asks of us is not that we condone sin, but that we keep from judging sinners. We are to reject the act, not the agent. This will be less hard if we’ve courage to enter the abyss of our own heart. By remaining there, we’ll be too busy with our own faults to bother much with those of others.
So far, I have spoken only of the Pharisee. I have not said a word about the tax collector. Yet there he is in his corner with eyes downcast: the model proposed for our imitation. If we join him there, out of sight, in the inner chamber of repentance, we can make his prayer our own and add another, also taught by Christ: that we may be merciful even as we have been shown mercy. It is a prayer the Lord will surely answer. We shall know his power and again pour forth the thanksgiving that, for a bitter moment of proud delusion, we withheld.