Saturday, February 29, 2020

Lent 2020: The Myth of the "Pretty Good Person"

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

That's the Jesus Prayer, a very simple plea that the Orthodox use in imitation of the tax collector who, in the presence of the righteous Pharisee, bowed his head and struck his breast, acknowledging his sinfulness and humbly asking for God's mercy. Many Orthodox will repeat that simple prayer over and over throughout the day, like a mantra, keeping track of their recitations on a prayer rope.

In our readings today, Jesus reminds those same Pharisees that he came not to save the righteous but sinners. And while I might be critical of many who practice Christianity but don't act Christ-like, I acknowledge my own shortcomings as well. I fall into fear and despair too easily. I succumb to gluttony, both in food and in material things. And in a land of plenty, I think my biggest fault is not sharing as freely of my means as I could with the poor and needy. We are all, in fact, at fault if we aren't prepared to give up all we have and follow Jesus. The young rich man couldn't do it and walked away in sadness from Christ. Could we, if asked? Do we feel a sting of guilt when we encounter the following challenge put forth by St. Basil the Great?
When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who would clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money you hoard up belongs to the poor.
We are all guilty before God in this regard. Let none of us think we are righteous and pure.

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble had this to say on the matter in today's Remember Your Death entry:
We rationalize our sins thinking, "Oh, that was pretty minor. I don't think that was a big deal." We evaluate ourselves against other people and think, "I'm not that bad. I mean, comparatively, I think I'm a pretty good person." 
Meanwhile confessionals remain dusty as we all die of the terminal illness of being a "pretty good person." The scourge of our modern age is the widespread acceptance of the "pretty good person" ideal. First, because the bar of goodness is set extremely low. Serious sins are batted away with the roll of an eye and venial sins are either completely ignored or elevated to primary importance, and second, because to be a "pretty good person" is not the same as striving to live a virtuous life. Valuing virtue has all but disappeared, dismissed as unrealistic, impossible. Instead, we eagerly embrace mediocrity without realizing how easily a "pretty good person" can fall into wretched evil. 
As we saw in yesterday's reading from Isaiah, God looks favorably on those who carry out justice for the poor and needy. Today, he tells us again:
Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. 
We cry out for God's mercy and favor. Over and over, he shows us how to receive it. The question is whether we're up for the challenge.

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