Lectionary readings for today:
Morning Psalms 5; 147:1-11
Evening Psalms 27; 51
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that
I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this
tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
When I was in my late 20s, I tried to give away all my worldly possessions.
Not quite all, actually, as I was just trying to get down to what would fit
in my car whenever I moved, which happened often. I went from having over
1600 books to owning less than 200. I didn’t have a table, so I ate on the
floor. I only had one chair where I sat to read, though I was going to
exchange that for a futon, so I could get rid of my bed.
Not surprisingly, at the same time, I was reading books about the Desert
Fathers and Mothers, those early Christians who went away from the world and
became hermits. One idea I found there was their distinction between pride
and vanity, two words we now tend to use interchangeably. They said that
pride is when you believe you are better than others. Vanity is when you
worry what others think about you. I was explaining this to my girlfriend
at the time, and I said, “I know which one I struggle with.” I was thinking
about vanity, as I was terribly self-conscious, but, without pausing, she
said, “Yeah, it’s pride.” When I asked her to explain, she commented, “You
think you’re better than other people because you own less than they do.”
She was right.
The Pharisee in this parable of Jesus reminds me too much of myself, and he
serves as a reminder of what Lent is about. It is easy to make Lent into a
type of competition, whether with other people or even with ourselves. We
want to give up something challenging, not like other people, who give up
something easy or don’t give up anything at all. Or we try to one up
ourselves from previous years: “Last year, I gave up chocolate. This year,
I’ll give up all sweets, plus write a note to someone every day.”
We should note that the Pharisee in the parable is standing by himself,
which is where such an attitude leaves us, away from God and away from
others. Lent is not about proving our spirituality or showing how holy we
are. We do not need to prove that to ourselves or to others, and we are
unable to prove it to God. Instead, Lent is about remembering, like the tax
collector, that such proof does not exist, that we need mercy. We find that
mercy not by standing by ourselves, but by standing with God and the
community of faith, humble, asking for grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.