GOOD AND BAD SINNERS

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Pastors corner with Fr Henry Ibe

 


The story is told of a father who was terribly concerned that his family watched too much television. While the children spent too much time on the Cartoon Network, the wife was hooked to the Africa Magic channel. So, the man came up with a “brilliant” solution: “As soon as the Premier League season is over, I will cancel the cable television subscription.”

This is hypocrisy 101! It is at the heart of Jesus’s teaching today as he continues his long-running dispute with the scribes and the Pharisees. These people had broken the Law into bits and pieces, highlighting the tiniest of details. By the time of Jesus, these details had become oral traditions, so much treasured by the Pharisees, along with a further 613 written precepts. This complexity made the Law too burdensome, impossible to maintain. Our Lord condemns the hypocrisy of these people who, by getting obsessed with external ritualism, lost sight of the spirit of the Law. The Pharisees wrongly placed these traditions on the same level with the revealed law of God.

In our Gospel passage, the Pharisees and the scribes are complaining about some of Jesus’ disciples eating with their hands unwashed. However, their criticism is not based on a pious submission to God’s will but rather on the external observance of human regulations which had no impact whatsoever on one’s relationship with God. Also, their criticism was not because they had the welfare of those disciples of Jesus at heart, but rather it was aimed at Jesus himself. By trying to show how badly trained the disciples were, they sought to discredit Jesus’ teaching authority, undermine his entire ministry, and ultimately destroy him. The Pharisees believed that they knew better than anyone else, and this self-exaltation made them blind to the spirit of the Law.

Everyone is a sinner but there are ‘good’ sinners and there are ‘bad’ sinners. A ‘good’ sinner recognizes his/her brokenness and need for God’s grace. A good sinner acknowledges the reality of sin and its impact on the person and on society in general. A good sinner is like the penitent thief who cried out to Jesus on the Cross; or the Tax Collector who fell on his face in the Temple saying: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13). Such are the poor in spirit, those who recognize their need for God’s grace, and to them Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven.

In contradistinction, a ‘bad’ sinner is one full of pride. A bad sinner either denies the reality of his/her own sinfulness or pretends that there are no consequences for it. A ‘bad’ sinner is presumptuous of his/her own righteousness and looks down on everyone else. A ‘bad’ sinner is like that Pharisee who went to pray in the Temple and said: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Lk. 18:11, 12). He could not see beyond the facade that was his external works, and he was too proud to recognize his faults and need for God’s grace. A ‘bad’ sinner is a hypocrite living in a state of denial, using outward appearances to mask his/her weaknesses.

Hypocrisy is very much alive in our age – in government, in business, and even in the Church. When bureaucrats hide under the shadow of the red tape to inflict anguish and pain on other people; when big business exploits loopholes in the law to engage in unethical behaviour; when we Christians focus so much on the external participation in church activity while failing in our obligation towards the unborn, the aged, the homeless, the refugees, the weak and most vulnerable – then there is a problem.

Even at Mass it is so easy to go through the motions: saying the appropriate responses, standing, sitting and kneeling at the right moment, raising the voice in the hymns, receiving communion and even making generous offerings. But these external acts do not reflect exactly what goes on inside. For example, we may be distracted, tired, preoccupied, hanging on to some sinful habit, or just attending because it is a family tradition. External piety without interior conversion is only superficial, it is a charade only meant to deceive. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, hypocrites are put in hell and forced to wear heavy lead robes as they walk around in circles. Their robes are dazzling like gold and resembling a monk’s hood but are lined with heavy lead, symbolizing hypocrisy.

Jesus challenges the Pharisees for emphasizing outward ritual purity while neglecting the moral and spiritual angle. Their concept of true religion derives from rules made by humans and not by God. However, true religion comes from our docility to the Holy Spirit. It flows from a total dependence on the grace of God and a realization of our utter helplessness without it. A true disciple can never be satisfied with merely exterior piety. We should never consider ourselves superior to others just because our sins are less visible. That’s what the Pharisees did, which blinded them to divine grace and, tragically, turned them into enemies of God. True religion has exterior manifestations, certainly, but they are meant to flow from and give expression to the interior movements of the heart. The heart is where we decide for or against our conscience, for or against God’s will. Our friendship with Christ, and the purpose, strength, and vigour that flows out of that friendship, depend on our inner allegiance to him. What matters is not how other people see us but how Jesus sees us, and that’s what we should care about. The closer we draw to God the more we discover our imperfections, and the more we focus on them rather than busy ourselves with the faults of others.

Therefore, as we receive the Eucharist with love and reverence today, let us pray that its transformative power may renew us, that we may be more compassionate in the way we judge other people and their actions. Amen.

 


 

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