I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
It's hard for us human creatures to quit sleepwalking long enough to face our own sins. This is curious because we readily recognize others' failings. Many of us lose track of time in such discussions. And the conversation was even more delicious if the person analyzed was the bishop or pastor. Don't get me wrong. I know you (like me) did it for a good motive - certain things just had to be brought out. Maybe something even came of it, but I also admit: It felt good - at least while I held that image in my mind, my own faults seemed minor by comparison.
A few decades back Kris Kristoferson had a corny song with the words, "Everybody Needs Somebody to Look Down On." After listing possible candidates, he said, "And, brother, if you don't find somebody to look down on...well, help yourself to me." We smile because we recognize the tendency. It is tempting to set up an external standard to judge others, to spot people by the clothes or expressions they wear. Externals do provide handy, even necessary signals - like a physician's white coat or an attorney's briefcase. But they trap us when we employ them to avoid the real issue.
The Pharisees did that in spades. They exalted outward practices, like elaborately washing their hands up to the elbows and using the "right" utensils. They looked down on those who did not - or could not - follow those behaviors. Jesus made an end run around their defenses. He presented them with a universal examination of conscience:
evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. (Mk 7:21-22)
Sometimes people will say to me, "Father, I've broken all the commandments, well, except I didn't kill anyone."
I'm tempted to leave it there and move on to the next penitent, but I know Jesus doesn't go for vague repentance. So I say, "OK, you missed Mass on Sunday?"
"And you lied, you deceived someone?" Once again, assent, but more reluctant.
"You stole something?" Hesitation, no desire to get into particulars on that one.
I imagine a similar reticence when Jesus provided a simple examination of conscience to the Pharisees, that is, to people we would call solid, good, above reproach. Jesus' goal was not scrupulosity, the terrible affliction of those who cannot open themselves to mercy. Rather he hoped to offer salvation to even the best and the brightest, those who thought they needed it least.*
As I stated initially, it is a great challenge for any human being to face his own sins. But we have a particular difficulty today - to even acknowledge the reality of sin. Commentators talk about a new elite which sets today's standards: the "Bourgeois Bohemians," called Bobos for short. They do not reject all ethical values - no human can do that. But they have a clever way of taking things once considered negative - like greed, unchastity, envy and arrogance - and putting a positive spin on them. They have done that even with murder. In certain circumstances it has become an act of compassion. For a couple of centuries now men have advanced the idea we can create our own morality.** However, the Bobos have done more than simply embrace moral relativism. They possess powerful instruments to disseminate that view to every corner of our planet.
But we also possess an effective antidote to such poison - to softly repeat Jesus' reminder about the emptiness of externals. Altho the Pharisees did not deny the moral law, they effectively made it secondary to outward practices. The Bobos - and those who envy them - have gone further and wound up even more unhappy.*** With persistence, born of true compassion, we can keep pointing out why.
*We make a mistake if we picture the Pharisees as some uptight, marginal group. In fact they were the "cream of the crop." St. Paul boasted about being a Pharisee (Acts 23:6, Phil 3:5). Ordinary folk held them in high regard - much like we esteem medical doctors, football players or Microsoft engineers. They were learned, skilled; they had it all together. False assurance blinded them to their true status which ironically was both much worse and potentially much better than they supposed.
**Chesterton referred to new religions which forgive mens sins by telling them there is no such thing.
***Yes, I admit (like you) I do sometimes envy the Seattle dotcom millionaires. That they recognize their own emptiness can be seen in the thriving spirituality industry. Unfortunately it is more a marketing triumph than substance. It convinces folks they can eat their cake and still have it, but does not get to the heart of the problem.
From Archives (Homilies for 22nd Sunday, Year B):