3rd Week of Lent (S)
How do I become convinced of my own righteousness? There are several ways, of course, but the way Jesus focuses on in his parable is the Way of the Pharisee. In sum: follow the Law to the letter; show God how serious I am about our relationship by never breaking a rule; never deviating from even the smallest regulation. To be fair to the Pharisee – this is more or less how things worked in the Jewish world for centuries. Men and women demonstrated their fidelity to the Covenant by doing as they were told. They weren't made righteous by their obedience, but they were “accounted righteous,” said to be righteous by their works. You can think of this as being in compliance with the terms of a contract. Your internal disposition toward the other party is largely irrelevant to whether or not you are in compliance. CHASE bank doesn't care whether or not I love it, so long as I pay my bill. Pay my bill according to the terms of the contract, and I'm righteous with the bank. They “account me righteous.” When it comes to our relationship with the Father, Jesus says, “Not good enough.” It's not enough that I follow the rules, especially if following the rules leads me to despise another as a sinner. Despising another is evidence that I am, in fact, not righteous at all.
Yesterday, Jesus brought two laws together and called them The Greatest Commandment: the Lord is the only God of Israel; love Him and love your neighbor. “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Every rule, every regulation; every jot and tittle of the law is grounded in these two commandments. But the Lord's parable makes clear that we must start with the greatest and move into the least. Perfecting our obedience to the lesser rules and regs doesn't guarantee our fidelity to the Greatest Commandment. In fact, we may end up convinced of our own righteousness and hating another for their sin, thus violating both the spirit and the letter of the Commandment. How do we avoid this Pharisaical trap? Begin by acknowledging that we are made righteous as a gift. Righteousness is not earned; it doesn't come as a reward for being good boys and girls. It's given. Freely given to us while we are still sinners. The gift of righteousness then enables us to love God first so that we can love our neighbor. Loving God and neighbor doesn't produce righteousness. The righteousness we are freely given frees us to love God and neighbor. Everything else in our growth in holiness flows from this. We pray, fast, give alms; attend to the sacraments; do good works b/c we love God and neighbor. When we encounter a sinner, we love them – as fellow sinners – so that they may come to see and hear the mercy of God and receive the righteousness He gifted us all through Christ Jesus. Despising the sinner may appear to be a good strategy for moving him/her out of sin, but that's the Devil trying to talk us into a trap. Hate the sin and the sinner, and the sinner will abandon the sin, he says. No. That strategy instantly violates the Greatest Commandment and makes us tools of the Enemy. He has another lie that tempts us: love the sinner and his/her sin. That will convince the sinner that they are welcomed, accepted, and included. No, again. We are to love God first, then our neighbor. We cannot love sin, God, and neighbor all at the same time. Trying to do so may feel righteous, and we may get lots of applause from the world for the attempt, but ultimately, all we are doing is telling the sinner that he/she doesn't need divine love or His mercy. Is that our mission and ministry as followers of Christ? Obviously not. Our job is to be His love and mercy for sinners. He died for sinners. Not sin.