Friday, September 12, 2014

Jesus: Friend of Sinners, but Enemy of Pride

Recent events have many people in orthodox Catholic circles discussing the old standby:  The question of whether Jesus would speak out strongly against the rampant sin of today's society, or whether He would "eat with sinners" while only publicly reprimanding the religious elite.  After all, the argument goes, Jesus was always gentle with the prostitutes, fornicators, adulterers and the like, while he spoke in scathing terms against the Pharisees and experts on religious law.  To the sinners whom society rejected, He patiently said "Go and sin no more," while He made no end of deriding the "doctors and lawyers" who were supposed to be "upstanding citizens."

My prescription is that you be more like me and less like
a terrible, good-for-nothing sinner.  (Okay, wrong "doctor")

The way that people interpret this, often enough, is that the "mean, self-righteous" hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as well as those Catholics who dare to take the Catholic Church's teachings seriously, are the ones whom Jesus would criticize most openly today.  The people marching in the gay pride parades, the atheists who spew nothing but vitriol to Christianity, the celebrities selling sex to the highest bidder, all of these, it is presumed, would be handled with kid gloves by Jesus, just as he was cordial to the downtrodden, guilt-ridden sinners of His own day.

There is one significant problem with this presumption:  Many of these groups, in today's cultural context, are a far cry from the equivalent in Biblical times.  When our Lord walked the earth, the quintessential prostitutes and tax collectors were not outspoken mouthpieces for the subversion of traditional morality.  The sinners with whom Jesus ate, by every indication, were not rallying for their sins to be accepted and promoted by society.  In fact, it is reasonable to assume, in such a conservative society as ancient Israel, that these were sinners who knew they were sinners.  Yes, they persisted in their sins, quite probably, but in every instance where we actually get to see a detailed interaction between these sinners and Jesus, they humbly admitted that they were sinners.  These were not open critics of religion or traditional moral values.  These were the sinners, like in the parable of the pharisee and the tax collectors, who contritely hoped that God would "have mercy on me a sinner."

On the other hand, the Pharisees, as we so often seem to forget, were sinners too.  We often say "Jesus ate with sinners, but was angry at the Pharisees," as if the Pharisees weren't sinners.  What, however, was the sin of the Pharisees?  Why did Jesus treat them with less respect and gentleness than the other sinners?  The answer is obvious:  Pride.  In Jesus' day, a prostitute knew she was sinning.  An adulterer knew he had done wrong.  But a religious figure, a Pharisee or a priest, they committed sins of arrogance and callousness, and had the audacity to insist that they were righteous, as though their sins weren't sins.

Tell me, when we observe the crowd of today's times who attack traditional values, or the unbelievers who openly mock people of faith, which sinners does their attitude better reflect?  Are they like a poor, ashamed sinner in first century Israel?  Or are they more like the Pharisees, smugly insisting that they are righteous in their deeds, while mocking anyone who would dare to question their superior judgment and knowledge?  For a relevant example from present-day, is a gay activist who calls anyone who disagrees with him a "bigot," really the same as the woman caught in adultery, humbly listening when Jesus said to "go and sin no more," implying that he does concede that his actions are wrong?  Or does he behave with the self-assurance of the religious leaders of Christ's day, thinking himself of superior character to those he calls "bigots" just as surely as a Pharisee found himself superior to fornicators?

Dear God/Universe/Inner-Self/Brain,
I thank Thee that I am not like those bigots at the church down the street,
Nor like those simpleminded religious folks who are ruining this world.

Don't get me wrong.  There are still plenty of self-righteous people on the religious side of things.  There are still "devout" Catholics who look down on others who sin in ways they consider dirty or gross, especially on those whose sins include sexuality or drunkenness.  I've seen it myself.  As a man with same sex attractions, I have personally encountered those who, no doubt with upturned noses, insist that if I fall to my temptations that I am far worse than they are if they fall to their conveniently different temptations.  The brand of Pharisee-ism that lived in Jesus' day is still alive and well in religious establishments the world over, and will probably thrive in some capacity until the end of time.  

Likewise, there are still plenty of us who struggle with sexual sins, or perhaps sins against sobriety, and other sins that the aforementioned self-righteous people traditionally look down on, who are as willing to admit that we are sinful--that we are in the wrong, and need to change--as any prostitute in Jesus' day might have admitted.  So it's not as though the tables are totally turned, so that now the traditionally shamed sinners are suddenly all Pharisees, and those who were once Pharisees are now all poor humbled sinners.  

Still, we mustn't believe that Jesus would have gone soft on the downtrodden sinners of His day if they had been prideful, when His treatment of the Pharisees shows exactly what He thought of pride.  If the tax-collectors and "unclean" sinners of His day had been just as willfully blind to their own faults--while judging the faults of others--as the Pharisees, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that He would not have shown them the same tough brand of love that He showed the Pharisees (and He did love them:  So much that He later prayed "forgive them, for they know not what they do").  

Now, I'm not saying that we should all be so bold as to give prideful "I'm so much better than you" sinners a good tongue-lashing the way Jesus did.  I don't doubt that some Catholics are called to that, as some of the great saints certainly weren't afraid to break out the harsh words.  Still, that doesn't mean we're all equipped with the talent for it, nor the wisdom to know when it wouldn't do more harm than good.  But either way, we are also not called to pretend that just because a sinner's material sins may be the same as those whom Jesus handled with great care, that the sinner himself is more like those sinners and not, in fact, like the pharisees.

Pride is the worst of sins, the sin that caused the rebellion in Heaven that gave us demons and the devil himself.  It is snobbish pride, not any other brand of sin, that caused Jesus to be so harsh on the Pharisees.  Because such pride always needs to be taken down a notch.  And whether you're the sort of sinner who would fit right at home with the scribes and lawyers 2000 years ago, or whether you'd fit in more at a brothel or a bar, if you have the sort of pride that leads you to deny your own sinfulness while smugly looking down on those whose sins are different from your own, you have just as much to worry about as the chief priest himself did while our Lord walked the earth.  


  1. You're right that, in some sense at least, Jesus didn't deal with unapologetic sinners. But he probably did deal with sinners that only become apologetic because Jesus chose to dine with them. Thus, I imagine that many a public "unapologetic" sinner would be likely to become apologetic if Pope Francis decided to have lunch with them. I don't think Jesus waited to make sure the sinners were apologetic before visiting -- though he may have *left* if all he encountered from the sinner was obstinate self-righteousness about their sin.

    Some of that is speculation, but it's based on Paul's activity, which we know more about. Paul hob-nobbed with the pagan elite, not in the midst of their sin (he didn't visit brothels!), but he did so out of a desire to convert them. The people Paul tried to convert clearly had detailed reasons for their moral positions. In response, Paul preached "Christ crucified".

    I don't think there are many principles here, except "Avoid the near occasion of sin" and "Work for your brother's salvation". Those principles don't seem radically different to me, whether or not the sinner is repentant. But dining with unrepentant sinners is certainly much more likely to cause scandal, so that's worth considering.

    1. Thanks for your comment, urset! I agree with you: There were likely sinners that Jesus--and especially Paul, and probably the other disciples--socialized with in order to reach them in spite of their NOT admitting that they were sinners. After all, there are plenty of people, we have to assume, who genuinely don't know they're sinning, so we can't expect these people to be apologetic for something they don't even realize is wrong. It's necessary to go out, to show that you don't think you're "too good" to reach out to people, in order to have a chance and speaking Christ to them in any meaningful way.

      My point is that whenever a sinner is self-righteous, I don't believe Jesus would have discriminated as to whether that sinner was a pharisees or a pagan, a priest or a prostitute: He vocally condemned self-righteous pride wherever He found it. Even in our modern day, I should add that there's a difference between a sinner who is merely proud and unapologetic about his sins, and a sinner who is arrogant toward those who do things HE disapproves of even as he persists in his own sins. I've known gentle, considerate people who continue to live lives of sin and who claim to genuinely believe they are doing nothing wrong, and my post isn't relevant toward them at all.

      The Pharisees did not merely insist that they weren't sinful, they looked down on those whose sins (whether real or perceived) were different from their own, whose actions were therefore "safe" for them to disapprove. And that's where I think Jesus' ire seemed to be drawn.