Those who are Convinced of their Own Righteousness
by Fr. Robert D Smith
In St. Luke's Gospel, we read, "He then addressed this parable to those
who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone
else. "Two men went up to the Temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee
and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this
prayer to himself," I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust,
adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax
collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get." The tax collector
stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to Heaven; but
he beat his breast and said, "God be merciful to me a sinner." This man I
tell you went home again justified; the other did not. For everyone who
raises himself up will be humbled, but anyone who humbles himself will
be raised up' ". (Luke 18:9-14)
Unless one keeps in mind the whole passage here, it is possible to become confused as to its meaning. Taking parts of it, we can ask: What is really so terribly wrong with the Pharisee? Christ says clearly that this man is
"unjustified", on the road to Hell. For what? For boasting of the good things he
has done? This boasting is certainly wrong, but is it the kind of major sin that by
itself deprives a person of the state of grace, of the state of justification?
But if we look at the whole passage, we see that it is not as if this man
were merely ticking off some of his good points, or even merely comparing himself favorably to the tax collector, as mistaken, as wrong as this would be. He
is saying that he is without sin altogether, without the need for the mercy of
God. As St. Luke says, he was "convinced of his own righteousness," had con-
vinced himself that he was a thoroughly good man, and that he had no need of
repentance, or of making a prayer for mercy.
It is not the Pharisee's boasting, by itself, that makes him utterly unjustified, subject to damnation. It is because he has convinced himself that he
is totally without sin. Christ is making a universal point here. The people who
think of themselves as good, as without sin, are bad. The people who think of
themselves as bad, are good.
This seems impossible, absurd. But it is not so. What does a person
committed to the observance of The Commandments, who is on the road to
Heaven, have? It is invariably an awareness of his own sinfulness, of failure to
do anywhere near as well as he should. And what do we see with those
committed to abortion, to sodomy, to fornication? If we know them well, we
find that these are the ones who are going around telling people that they are
good persons. Faithful Christians do not do this.
We can still ask: How can it possibly be happening this way? There is an
answer to this. The faithful Christian can admit that he is a sinner because he
can bear to look at his sins. Sins of distraction at prayer, of lack of control of
thoughts, of lack of control of what he looks at, of ill-chosen words. But the
person committed to deadly sin who is making no attempt at repentance or
correction cannot afford to do this. The unrepentant abortionist cannot look
directly at the evil, at the horrible qualities of what he does. The sodomite
cannot look at the hideous nature of his sin. The unrepentant fornicator cannot
look at the cruelty of his own course of action, even though the cruelty is mutual.
And so forth.
The person committed to sin for any length of time will find that he is
calling himself a good man openly, vocally, to others. The faithful, repentant
Christian will increasingly call himself a sinner. Moreover, the unrepentant
sinner who calls himself a good man will also find himself boasting about his
good points. The faithful, repentant Christian will not call himself good, nor will
he boast of his good points.
There is something about this parable which hints at Judgment Day
itself. Some people are preparing for a judgment in which they are going to
announce to Christ the goodness of their own hearts. Others are preparing to
meet their God as sinners who need His mercy very much. It is only the latter
who are justified and who are going to be justified on that day.
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