As we are going through the All Things New process, I have heard a lot of comments from people about what they think would fix the problems in the church. And, very often, the solution they had rests on someone else. Someone else is not doing what they “should” be doing, and that is the source of our problems. “Father, if those Catholics who don’t come to Mass regularly would come every Sunday, then we would have more people.” “Father, if people would have more kids, then our schools would be fuller.” “Father, if the Archdiocese would just do this or that, then it would fix the problem and we wouldn’t have to do all these mergers.” I have yet to have someone come up to me and say, “Father, the problem is that I personally haven’t done what God calls me to do, and that has contributed to the overall situation in the Church that has led to All Things New.” The problem is always some “them,” some group that I am not part of.
I think of that in light of today’s Gospel. St. Luke clearly wants to make sure that his reader understands the point Jesus is trying to make, so he introduces the parable by saying, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” “Those who were convinced of their own righteousness.” Those who were convinced that they were right, that they had nothing of which they could be accused. Those who knew that they were the good ones, and if there was a problem then surely someone else had caused it.
It is one of the perennial temptations of anyone who tries to live their faith. As we grow in following God, we begin to become self-satisfied. We become convinced of our own righteousness, that we have reached a point beyond reproach. And when we do that, we can quickly start dividing the world into two classes: those who are righteous, like us, and the sinners. That is what the Pharisee does in the parable. He is convinced of his own righteousness, convinced that he is not like the sinners out there. To him, there are two classes of people: himself, and maybe a few others like him, and, as he says in his prayer “the rest of humanity.”
It is easy to fall into the same mindset as the Pharisee, dividing other members of the Church into good Catholics and bad Catholics. I’m a good Catholic because I attend Mass, but those people who don’t, or don’t attend it as regularly, they’re bad Catholics. I’m a good Catholic because I voted for this person, but those people who voted for someone else, they’re bad Catholics. I’m a good Catholic because I’m part of this ministry or I volunteered for this event, but those people who didn’t, they’re bad Catholics. I’m a good Catholic because I sent my kids to Catholic school, but those who don’t are bad Catholics.
This dividing of people into the righteous and unrighteous can bleed out of the bounds of our faith as well. It can manifest in our attitude towards those who are in need. Many people assume that if someone is homeless or in need, it is because of some failing or wrongdoing on their part. Underlying this is the idea that good people like me don’t end up in that situation, so if someone is in that situation they must have done something wrong.
Often, this dividing people into “good” people and “bad” people shows in how we are willing to allow the “bad” people to be treated in ways that we would not allow for ourselves. We see this in the treatment of undocumented immigrants. There are plenty of examples of undocumented immigrants being treated in shockingly inhumane ways, ways that certainly none of would want to be treated. Yet this treatment is justified by those who support it by claiming that the people being mistreated broke the law. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, but I’m not like them, so it is okay to treat them that way.
This dividing of people is also at the heart of racism, both the overt, explicit acts of racism as well as all the subtle ways that racist beliefs can color our thoughts, words, and actions.
Far too many Christians have adopted the mindset of the Pharisee in their treatment of LGBTQ people, ostracizing them and treating them as though they are inherently bad people. This past summer, as monkey pox cases were spreading especially among gay men, I was shocked to see how many used veiled, or not-so-veiled, language to essentially say, “This isn’t affecting people like me, so I’m not concerned about the people whom it is affecting.” It was sadly reminiscent of stories from the AIDS epidemic. Again, it is rooted in this mindset that there are good people, people like me, and there are bad people, and I am not like those bad people.
These are just a few examples. There are a myriad of ways that we can fall into the mindset of the Pharisee and divide people into two group: the saints and the sinners, the righteous and the unrighteous. Whether it is because of something they have done, their politics, their economic background, who they are, or any number of other things, we can classify people and create a division between those we deem good and those we deem bad.
How do we avoid falling into the mindset of the Pharisee? First, as we see in the Gospel, we need to humbly and honestly acknowledge our own sinfulness. This can’t just be lip-service. It is far too easy to say, “Yes I am a sinner,” but then immediately say, “But I’m not like them. They’re the real sinners.” This is not humbly and honestly acknowledging our sinfulness. I am not better than someone else just because my sins are different from theirs. I am a sinner, no asterisks or caveats.
Second, we need to remember that the good we do is the result of God’s grace in us, and so He deserves the glory, not us. That is what the Pharisee forgot. Everything the Pharisee said may have been true. It may be true that he was not greedy, dishonest, or adulterous, that he fasted twice a week and paid tithes on my whole income. But he used that to glorify himself rather than the Lord. On the contrary, St. Paul in the second reading acknowledge the good that he has done. “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” But, St. Paul adds, that was not his doing but God’s. “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength,” he says. “To him be glory forever and ever.” It may be true that my sins are less severe than others, but that is not because I am a good person and they are a bad person, but because God has been generous with me in ways that I don’t deserve.
The readings call us to honest reflection. How have I divided people into two groups: the righteous, like me, and the unrighteous? Whom have I looked down upon as inherently worse than me? Where have I permitted others to be treated in ways that I would never allow for myself because they are different from me in some way? Let us ask the Holy Spirit to heal us from this attitude of division, and acknowledge that we, just like everyone else, are sinners in need of God’s mercy.