November 26, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Making sure that we are not the Pharisee in the story

Cynthia DewesRemember the Pharisee in St. Luke’s Gospel who was thankful he wasn’t like the poor sinner sitting behind him in the synagogue

(Lk 18:9-14)? After all, the Pharisee practiced pious works all the time, and gave alms to good causes, and followed the letter of the law, unlike that other wretch.

Of course, we like to think that we aren’t the Pharisee in the story, but I suspect that is not always the case.

Speaking from personal experience, I must admit that I am thankful that I am not like some others: serial killers, adulterers, child abusers, etc. You know, the people we hear about constantly on TV news and talk shows. I harbor a secret feeling of moral superiority over folks like that.

Not only am I thankful that I am not guilty of serious crimes, but also that I am innocent of other kinds of failings.

I am thankful I am not obese—or, rather, not obese enough—to require stomach surgery like that other lady. I am thankful that I still have all my original bodily equipment, unlike those with artificial this and that. And I am thankful that I have a job when the other guy doesn’t, and a place to live when he or she may be homeless.

I am thankful that I am an educated person, when others are ignorant or just dull. I am thankful to be clean when others live in filth and squalor. I am thankful that I can cook a tasty meal while others can only order in cardboard pizza.

I am also thankful that my kids still treat me with respect and affection while others’ families are estranged or dysfunctional. I am thankful for a long and happy marriage when others suffer divorce or separation, sometimes more than once.

I am thankful that my friends are loyal when others can’t seem to maintain long-term relationships. I am thankful that I am a woman living in the U.S.A. rather than being a woman in Somalia or Afghanistan. And I am thankful to have faith in God when others struggle with unbelief.

This all sounds pretty mean of me, and it is when I let the Pharisee in me take over. That’s because the Pharisee’s fault is not in being glad for his good fortune, which is a natural reaction.

Rather, it is in his judgment of the other fellow as morally inferior because he is not as virtuous as the Pharisee thinks himself to be. It is that moral superiority, that blindness to our own sins, and the belief that we are better than the sinner next to us, that will be our undoing.

Now, there is nothing wrong with pious activity or following the letter of religious practice, as long as we aren’t proud of doing it. We shouldn’t forget that the right hand is not supposed to know what the left hand is doing, virtuous as it may be. Nor is it up to us to judge the efforts and motives of the other guy.

It seems to me, instead of dwelling on how good we are or how good we have it because of our own sterling efforts, we should pray for guidance to help that fellow next to us who is beating his breast in penance. In fact, we probably should join him since it takes a sinner to recognize another sinner.

Most of all, I am thankful that God has given me so much to be thankful for … and thankful for so much help from others when I need to be forgiven.

Now, that’s a Happy Thanksgiving!

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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