“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” Have you heard that question over the past couple of days? Perhaps you heard—or read on facebook—unsolicited answers to the same question. Does it strike anyone else as antithetical to the discipline that one make an announcement about a practice at least partially intended to cure our pride?
Pride. That vicious animal that separates us not only from God, from our fellows–but from our own best selves as well. It is so readily identified in the other and so invisible to its bearer. And that company of bearers, of course, includes all of us to one extent or another. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, we fashion ourselves in the role of the tax collector and never the dreaded Pharisee in the story Jesus told. The more we mimic the Pharisee, the less our hope of knowing our true selves.
Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Lent, penance, reflection, self-assessment. We cannot live successfully if we spend all of our time in such a place; nor can we live very well at all if they find no place in our schedule. That would be a recipe for spiritual death. It reminds me of a cartoon someone posted, with a doctor asking an overweight fellow which one fit better into his schedule: exercising an hour a day or being dead for twenty-four? Themes dealing with reparation of heart and life constitutes a portion of the Christian year, not the whole. There’s a resurrection coming, which means newness of life. But the old stuff has to give way before the new can sprout.
People have always had difficulty with repentance. Just look through the Bible and see how both corporately and personally, letting go of that which springs from selfish motives and goals yields ground very grudgingly, if at all. Our present-day context, more than was the case in the past, seems to celebrate the prideful and the haughty, simply because those who display such traits are deemed successful; and inwardly we’d like the opportunity to strut our stuff like they do, no matter how hideous the Ray Lewises of the world appear when they do it.
We repent of lesser sins, the annoying little habits, far more readily than we do of pride. We give the things we probably would have been well advised never to have begun, then return to them after Easter, and instead of taking up the new life of resurrection, return to that from which we were initially freed. But as long as we can comfort ourselves by not having the manifold sins of the tax collector in Jesus’ story, we can thank God for our superior standing and continue on our way.
Over the coming weeks of Lent this blog will be given to the gospel lessons for the season. Some will deal with the personal, some with the corporate aspects of repentance. I invite your comments and observations; but please spare the information about what you’ve given up—I wouldn’t want you to forfeit what benefit there may be.