Readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-19; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
One of the disconcerting experiences of our spiritual lives is the unexpected and unwelcome return of old patterns of sin we thought we had permanently overcome or outgrown. And although more obvious in areas like addiction and other compulsive behaviors, it is also evident in the unwelcome return of everyday failings like inappropriate expressions of impatience, irritation, anger, resentment, dislike, hate, envy, jealousy, selfishness, inconsiderateness, insensitivity and a host of other ways in which we fail in perfect love. And what’s especially disconcerting is that their return suggests a regression to an earlier stage of our spiritual journey. Needless to say we can be tempted to lose heart and believe that any step forward in the spiritual journey is followed–sooner or later–by two steps backward. And so, what are we to make of this tiresome and disconcerting cycle of advance followed by retreat, victory and then defeat? And more importantly, is there a way out of this frustrating going round in circles?
As with so much else in our spiritual lives, there are likely to be several interacting causes for this oft-repeated cycle. One important one is suggested in the parable Jesus offers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. For although Jesus presents them as two very different people, at very different places in their spiritual lives, they can also be understood to represent alternating aspects of ourselves in relationship with God. And so, for example, when we do achieve a certain level of sustained spiritual growth and development and certain sins and imperfections no longer plague or overcome us, we may tend towards the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and commend ourselves for our progress and growth. And if we are honest and alert to our inner thoughts and feelings we may also find ourselves looking down on others whom we deem to be spiritually less advanced. But this–a little like Peter walking on the water–can lead to taking our eyes off Jesus, relying on our own resources, and finding ourselves sinking beneath the waves of renewed temptations. And when we have been humbled by the resurgence of these previously overcome weaknesses and failings, we may spontaneously find ourselves drawing nearer to the tax collector and feeling that we are not even worthy to raise our eyes to heaven.
And then, having been brought to our senses through the renewed experience of our weakness without the constant assistance of the Lord, we steadily–with the welcome aid of God’s grace–reclaim the ground lost though our prideful self-righteousness. But then gradually in the process of regaining lost territory we are subtly drawn back to feelings of self-complacency, self-righteousness, and begin to feel our spiritual superiority and take our place alongside the Pharisee once again! And so we set in motion this repetitive cycle of a still fragile humility succumbing to self-righteousness and then collapsing in humiliation and wounded pride. And what makes it so difficult to break this frustrating cycle is that mysterious interplay between human free will and divine grace, between what we do in relation to overcoming sin and what is the work of God’s grace.
Accordingly, although the Pharisee’s self-righteous boasting is being condemned in this parable, it is only because it is a warped expression of what is an integral aspect of human effort cooperating with divine grace in bringing about our recreation and transformation in Christ. In other words, Jesus is not advocating that we blind ourselves to what is good in us through our wholehearted cooperation with his grace. But this calls for that difficult and delicate task of being able to acknowledge the cooperative nature of the enterprise without either downplaying one’s own grace-assisted efforts or obscuring the indispensable necessity of God’s sustaining grace. Conversely, although the tax collector is being held up as a good example of one who humbled himself and did not proclaim his goodness or virtue, this humility needs to be genuine and not either mere hypocritical and insincere posturing or a more psychological expression of self-hate or low self-esteem that can sometimes be confused with humility.
And so it is that if we are to make progress and sustain our growth in Christ, we can’t uncritically emulate the tax collector and simply reject the prideful stance of the Pharisee. Instead we may benefit from incorporating the best in both the tax collector and the Pharisee. With the tax collector we are called to acknowledge unconditionally our sinfulness and unworthiness to raise our eyes to heaven and behold the face of God. With the tax collector we are reminded that absent the sustaining power of God’s grace, we are literally nothing and can do nothing. But at the same time, in observing the Pharisee we can substitute his pseudo-gratitude with authentic gratitude in acknowledging what the Lord has accomplished in us through our free and willing cooperation with his grace, and praise him for his gracious mercy towards us. And when we reach this happy integration between these aspects of the tax collector and the Pharisee, we will likely find that we have also broken the seemingly endless cycle of one step forward and two steps backwards. And in doing so we will finally be free and whole again and join in Mary’s Magnificat by praising and glorifying the Lord for all that he has done, and continues to do, in us.