10-18-16 - Good and Sorry

I said last week, “God doesn’t want us good; God wants us real.” Over-simple, perhaps, but it is how Jesus is shown in the Gospels. He is generous, compassionate and forgiving with the repentant whose sins are outward and obvious, and he is often scathing toward the “good folks,” the Pharisees and scribes who were so sure they were pleasing God.

We see two kinds of righteousness in this week’s story: one based on doing the right things, the other on repenting for doing the wrong things. Jesus clearly stands with the second, suggesting that the way into the Life of God is through clear-eyed humility, not legalistic moral rigor. This message was so radical, it got him killed. It is still radical, and often ignored most by those who call themselves his followers.

Legalism is easier than humility. Humans tend to prefer success to failure, rules to ambiguity. To be honest about the ways we sin “in thought, word and deed” is much tougher than pushing those realities away and citing all the rules we’ve managed to keep. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable extolls his good works, his fasting and tithing – and the fact that he is not a thief, rogue, adulterer or extortioner. But those are easy sins to peg. Jesus goes deeper, suggesting that, in his pride and contempt for those weaker than himself, the Pharisee is actually less righteous than the low-life tax collector.

Of course, it’s not either/or. Christ-followers are called to both good works and repentance. The question is, what comes first? A focus on “keeping the rules” puts the emphasis on our action, not God’s. It often leads to anxiety and pride. But when we start from repentance, the action is with God, whose grace and forgiveness we need. And as we gratefully receive God’s grace, we often respond with compassion for those around us. I would say repentance often leads to good works, but good works rarely lead to repentance.

Want to try a little inventory? Make two columns. On one write everything you think makes you a “good person.” On the other, everything you feel ashamed of or insecure about. Can you live with knowing both columns tell a truth about you? Not the whole truth, but truth?

Maybe we can offer God the “sin” column, trusting that God’s forgiveness is here before we even confess.

Now, the “good works” column – take a good look. Do you do all those things from your heart, or because you think you’re “supposed to?” What would you take out of that list if you followed your heart? (I admit, I'm afraid to do this exercise!)

We can choose to be self-righteous, or self-aware – generally not at the same time. Seeing ourselves clearly makes it a little difficult to be self-righteous. And why work that hard anyway, when God’s giving it away for free?

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