Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
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The self-righteous Pharisee brags about his prayer life, his almsgiving, praying to himself in the temple area: “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous…” If the Pharisee were magically transported to Dallas in 2007, he might come to church and pray something almost exactly like our first-century Pharisee; or he might pray something like this: “O Parent, thank you for calling me to help you live your dream for me; thank you that I am not like these other people—theologically unenlightened, politically inactive, carnivorous and ecologically ignorant, wasting time with devotionals and sacramental pieties; thank you that I am not these others—non-inclusive, prejudiced, rigid in my thinking, closed to the spirit of the day.” Self-righteousness is sold in a variety of packages, under a number of different brand names. Surely we can be self-righteous in lauding our faux piety, our public displays of sanctity. We can also be deeply, terribly self-righteous in patting ourselves on the back for our self-serving acts of enlightened politics, social justice, and “work for the poor.” Lobbing Zip-Loc bags full of fake blood at George Bush’s motorcade is as self-righteous and attention-seeking as throwing yourself on the floor in front of the Blessed Sacrament during public Adoration and wailing for your sins. Both are great performances for an audience. Both produce piety for consumption. Both call attention to behavior as a way of affirming belief. And both can be all about me and my need for recognition. What distinguishes SELF-righteousness from GOD-righteousness is the claim I make about the source of my righteousness.
At first glance, Paul, writing to Timothy, sounds very much like the Pharisee from Luke’s gospel: I am poured like a libation; MY departure is near; I have fought well, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith; MY crown of righteousness awaits ME; no one came to defend ME, everyone deserted ME. I, I, I, me, me, me. Look at what I did, am doing, will do. It’s all about ME! You can almost hear Paul, the former Pharisee, praying out loud in the temple area: “Thank you, God, that I am not like THEM!” So, what about Paul’s apparently attention-seeking confession is God-righteous rather than merely self-righteous? He freely admits, several times, “…the Lord stood by me and gave me strength…I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and [He] will bring me to His heavenly kingdom.” And the kicker, the cinch on Paul’s God-righteous prayer: “To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen!” Clearly, publicly, eagerly Paul gives full credit, full attention to the Lord. Not his own unaided efforts. Not his own good works. Not even his meager contribution to the ministry of his witness. But to God does he loudly give thanks and praise: “[It is] the Lord, the just judge, [who] will reward me on that day…” Only him? Paul will be the only one rewarded? No. He goes on to give God thanks for rewarding “all who have longed for [God’s] appearance.” And not only that but he forgives those who deserted him in difficult times.
Because we must cooperate with God’s graces in order to grow in righteous, it becomes all too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that we are loved by God because of our good work. God loves us as our pay for doing good. When we have accumulated enough Love Credit in payment for “being good,” we are saved from Hell and whatever change is left over goes to someone else’s salvation. The nasty corollary of this lie is that we come to believe quite easily that the more good work we do, the more righteous we are. And it is not a huge leap then for us to come to believe that we do all these good works b/c of our own innate goodness, our natural kindness and compassion. There is no Bigger Lie in Christendom. Jesus says quite clearly, “I tell you, the [tax collector] went home justified, not the [Pharisee]; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Pharisee believes himself to be righteous as a result of his own good works. While the tax collector stands before God and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And that is where we find our righteousness, our rightness with God: His mercy and His mercy alone. We are made just, saved, redeemed by nothing other than God’s freely chosen act of making us just, of saving us, of redeeming us. We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. All we can do is accept or reject it and behave accordingly. Good works then are those works that result from our experience of the divine in God’s gift of Himself to us—in the sacraments, in prayer, in one another. Like Paul, our response is to pour ourselves out in sacrifice, to give ourselves over to others wholly and without condition, to love as God Himself loves. No easy thing. No simple matter of passion or sentiment.
Perhaps the most direct route to understanding what it means for us to love one another—and I mean here the “love of the righteous” not the sappy passion of telenovellas and romance novels—the most direct route of understanding charity is to understand its shadow: apathy—the state of “not-loving.” You might think that hate is the opposite of love. No. Hate is its own kind of passion. The opposite of love is apathy. Not loving, not caring, failing to desire the best, to will the best for another. Apathy is spiritually dangerous precisely b/c there is nothing here to convert, nothing there to turn around. Hate can be converted. Envy can be turned around. Apathy is cold, desolate, malignant. Its center is a dead heart of black ice. And when it motivates the body and soul of a child of God to act, those actions are predictably destructive. A heart devoid of love gleefully pronounces judgment on others, quickly trying, convicting, and executing offenders on little or no evidence; such a heart looks at the spiritually weak with dead eyes, seeing only fault and lack of good will; such a heart loathes true piety, God’s justice, and any authority but its own; such a heart beats against the Body of the Church, building its own altars, its own tabernacles, its own scriptures, honoring no one who walks in the way of its self-righteous self-importance. The apathetic heart is its own script, its own stage, its own star, and its own critic. And like any good prima donna imagines itself to be beautiful, well-loved, and always right in its convictions.
GOD-righteous love is antithetical to this monster. The charitable heart is painfully aware of it shortcomings, its lacks and needs—the truth of our faith freely flows through its muscles. Such a heart yearns for company, wants to be corrected in the faith, longs for holiness through obedience to the Word and the Church. A heart governed by love wants to be wanted, needs to be needed, seeks out the sinful so as to be of use to them in their working toward God. The loving heart never compromises the true, the good, or the beautiful for the impermanencies of the half-truth, the so-so, or the merely functional. Finally, the heart filled with God-righteous love never exalts itself but constantly gives thanks to God, pointing always to the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Our self-righteousness can take the form of public liturgical pieties or public political pieties; private acts of religious judgment or private acts of secular judgment. Laying claim to righteousness based on my deeds, my words, my thoughts is the surest way to separate myself from the only source of true rightness. If you will be rescued from the lion’s mouth, cry out to God for rescue. You can run. You can hide. But the lion is faster and sneakier. It is far better to end up humbled than it is to end up in the kitty litter.