Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do Our Achievements and Self-Righteousness Help Us Justify Ourselves Before God?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 18:1-4, October 27, 2013

A DECADE OR SO ago, an evening television show featured the Mangyans in Mindoro.  At one point, the reporter asked one of their chiefs if they had any desire to improve their situation by, say, making more money in order to buy elegant clothes, construct beautiful houses, and own the latest vehicles.  The chief answered that it was not in their culture to accumulate and concentrate wealth and that they were happy the way they were.  His answer was, of course, flabbergasting to us.  But that is because we were brought up in a culture far removed from the one in which the Mangyans live and survive. 

Culture largely defines our values, and therefore the way we look at people.  But our culture has largely been defined by the West.  And if we ask: who is acceptable to our community that has been shaped by Western values, the answer would be entirely different.  Before the judgment seat of our culture, one must not only be good, but even more important, he must have an achievement—political, economic, cultural, religious—in order to be considered praiseworthy.  No wonder, precisely because of our cultural make-up, many people parade their stockholdings, land titles, bank accounts, palatial houses, academic degrees tacked to their names and framed citations, among others.  How they display their assets!   Of course, these are important.  To have bank accounts, academic degrees, land titles, framed citations—one needs them in order to live what people brand as respectable life.  To live without them—how would one appear before our people and society if not a destitute, with nothing to survive on in this competitive world?

It is interesting to note that such outlook has been transferred, or at any rate can be found, in our life of faith.  In the realm of religion, it is likewise important for many people that one must have something before God.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 8:9-14), this is well illustrated in the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  What the Pharisee was able to accomplish made himself respectable, and obviously he lived within a circle of people whose social stratum and achievement no one at the time of Jesus would criticize: he did not extort, did something unjust, nor committed adultery.  On the contrary, he did more than what the law required: he fasted in food and drink twice a week (Monday and Thursday), although fasting was obligatory only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31; Num 29:7); he tithed all his purchases, which was more than what the law stipulated (Deut 14:22-29).  He would be like a Catholic who never transgresses any of the Ten Commandments, fasts Tuesdays and Fridays, and contributes much to the Church.  God would certainly be pleased with such religiosity! 

On the other hand, almost at the extreme end of the cultural and religious spectrum in Jesus’ day was the tax collector who had nothing to his name.  A known collaborator with the Romans who were the enemies of the Jews, he was avoided by his own people and excluded from the company of respectable men in the Jewish society.  An extortionist, he would have to make restitutions for his ill-gotten wealth before he could ever hope to be forgiven, if one goes by the teaching of the Pharisees.  Of course, even in our own society, any person like this particular tax collector would have difficulty in being accepted.

The Gospel today tells us that these two went to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee reciting a catalogue of his achievements and a litany of his own praises, the tax collector an inventory of his faults and a recital of his lack of achievements.  But in telling this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus surprised us with his concluding comment.  What transpired was a reversal of fortune, which would not have been acceptable, since normal Judaism took for granted that the Pharisee was a justified person, and the tax collector could only be such if he made retribution in addition to giving one-fifth to all those whom he had swindled, and reformed his life.  Hence the question: What went wrong?  Does the parable mean that God is happier with a sinner provided he repents, than with a virtuous man with all his merits and achievements?

On the surface, one may readily affirm that if God accepted the tax collector despite his sinfulness, it was because he is a God who loves the humble and despises the proud and the disdainful (Luke 1:51-52).  One’s achievements in religion could become a cause for pride and contempt for men and women who cannot come up to what common religiosity requires.  It often happens, for instance, that those who go to church Sundays, fast, contribute sizable amount to the parish projects and programs and practice virtues think that they have enough reason to be proud of themselves as Catholics who belong to a stratum formed by the elite in religiosity and, as a consequence, to criticize those who do not reach their standard.  This happens, too, in the secular world.  Many think that they form an elite enclave within the greater society on account of their wealth, education and upbringing.

At its marrow, however, the story is not simply about how we pray, but really about our justification before God.  As J. Fitzmyer observes, “one achieves uprightness before God not by one’s own activity but by a contrite recognition one one’s own sinfulness before him.”  The reason why it was the tax collector who was ultimately pleasing before God is that, before his judgment seat, human achievements, both in religion and in the secular world, are not decisive, however important they may appear to our Western culture.  God is not a God who can be controlled by any human achievements.  Quite the contrary, man cannot claim to be just on account of his achievements, because these do not count before him in the first place.  “What man thinks important, God holds in contempt” (Luke 16:15).  It is not man who makes himself just.  It is God, who gives justice as a gift.  Man does not attain it through his own effort.  What is ultimately decisive is that one puts his trust in God, abandons himself to him.  And this is what the tax collector did.  In terms of religious achievements, he had accomplished nothing to present before God.  But by acknowledging his sinfulness, unworthiness, and nothingness, he allowed God to give him the gift of being right before him. 

The parable, therefore, teaches us about the failure of human achievements and of self-righteousness to justify oneself.  It is God who justifies us sinners, and justification is always received as a gift from him.  We have nothing to boast before him.*

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