Righteousness Meter: How I’m Better Than You

“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men,
extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” ~ Luke 18:11

Let’s be honest.  It’s so easy to look at a neighbor who’s doing things all wrong and think “I’m glad I’m not him!”  Yes, it’s human nature to be glad you’re not anybody else besides you. We tend to think we do things better than most people. We think we parent better, love better, spoil our children less, are smarter and less superficial, and the list goes on and on.

Add to this a neighbor who doesn’t know Jesus and it raises the notch of our superiority a bit. When we try to live righteously and avoid sin it’s only normal to be thankful not to be in a big mess like a neighbor’s whose life is now falling apart, because of a selfish choice. We followed the rules and life’s not complicated.

However, we have to be careful. When we are so busy looking at what somebody else is doing wrong and we compare ourselves to him, we fail to properly examine ourselves. God will not judge us in comparison to others. He is going to judge our righteousness in comparison to His and we will fall very very short.

You see, the only person that has the right to look at a wretched sinner and think “I’m glad I’m not he” is Jesus Christ. But did He do that? No, instead He got his hands dirty by getting up close and personal to the worst of sinners and loving them where they were.

The idea is not to avoid contaminating ourselves by association, but to demonstrate love. When we see a fallen brother the proper reaction should be, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:10)

© 2014.  Victoria Gisondi. All rights reserved.

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19 thoughts on “Righteousness Meter: How I’m Better Than You”

  1. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: "Fourth Sunday of Easter" | St. John

  2. I agree with David Peters. This is an excellent article. It seems to me that judging others stems from a fear of what it might cost to sympathize with them, and so we put up a wall to justify our lack of involvement. The easiest thing to do is find some reason why we shouldn’t help, some justification for our fear. So, we find faults, real or imagined, and pass judgement. This, however, is contrary to the requirements of charity. Charity requires us to be engaged, and fosters compassion. Indifference is comorbid with an unwillingness to leave our comfort zones. As you wrote, Victoria, “He got his hands dirty by getting up close and personal to the worst of sinners and loving them where they were.” We must be willing to step out of our comfort zones and engage others as they are, where they are. For Christians, there is no room for excuses and no situation so awkward that it cannot be overcome with love. Love takes risks, shunning the thought, “It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.” Love never shies away from the chance to alleviate another’s pain and despair. Love, at the very least, rests side by side with the one who suffers. *Quote by Phil Dzialo

  3. This is an excellent article. How do we expect to win the world if we don’t like them? It is nothing but the sin of pride that looks down on others and compares ourselves to them. You really captured the heart essence of Luke 18:11. God bless.

  4. Pingback: John Paul II Was A Saint Before He Was Pope - BigPulpit.com

  5. I agree with you. Since we do not know the heart of anyone, pitying people for their perceived failings (messes) is dumb and dangerous. However, the phrase “the idea is not to avoid contaminating ourselves by association” is problematic. Jesus called everyone into His love and the love of His Father, but He did not associate with sinners,. He associated with repentant sinners. Although we are ALL sinners, we not ALL have the same attitude about our sins. Many of our great saints, who had the gift of spiritual insight and discernment caution against close association with active, unrepentant sinners because it is far easier to fall into sin and remain there than to try to live a virtuous life. So, judging the state of someone’s soul based on that someone’s external actions is OUT. Living a life that would attract ALL to Christ is IN. But, one component of living out such a Christian “beacon” life consists on being very careful and prudent regarding who we closely associate with.

    1. Victoria Gisondi

      Whats problematic is when you take a sentence, cut it in half, and quote
      it out of context. Read it again. “The idea is not to avoid
      contaminating ourselves by association, but to demonstrate love.” The
      message is clearly not an invitation to spend time carousing with people
      in their sin. It is simply to not be afraid to love your neighbor.

    2. I was sure that such was your message, but I have entered into religious discussions long enough to know that many people understand your phrase to mean what you do not intend, but precisely what I referred to. A few of my acquaintances ended up living in communes, smoking pot or ingesting peyote or whatever, after deciding to closely associate with “them sinners” in order to convert them. Up to now, none of them has converted back to Christ. It is the absolute truth that we are to love others in Christ, first of all. In fact, that is a clear commandment. That we can best do by living our Faith. The original Christian communities were precisely known for the way they lived. It was so starkly different from the way everyone else lived, that the example of the way they dealt with one another was the engine of conversion for many.

    3. Jesus didn’t associate with sinners? He spent time with the adulterous woman at the well (before she repented), he called down the tax collector from the tree (before he repented), he saved a prostitute from being stoned, etc. He can’t call a sinner to repentance if he doesn’t associate with him first. How are we supposed to win souls for Christ if we can’t associate with sinners? I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of the gospel message.

    4. Magdalena, please, before responding to me , or anyone else for that matter, kindly read well what you are responding to and above all quote well. I never said that Jesus did not associate with sinners, but that He, obviously being the only One capable of reading their innermost intentions and movement of their hearts, associated with those that He well knew were repentant sinners. One thing is to call ALL sinners to repentance as repeatedly as possible, and another is to associate closely with those that do not show any desire to change their course. Close associations with unrepentant sinners, who by definition persist in their sinful ways, is extremely dangerous because we are all powerfully inclined to sin. God calls each one of us, especially the laity, to teach by example, which means to give witness to our Faith by the way we live it. In doing that, both sinners who in the secrecy of their hearts are repentant seekwrs and those who are unrepentant and persisting in their sins, will be carefully looking at us. We should pray intensely for all, especially for those that may be unrepentant, and be very careful with whom we choose to closrly associate. Many repentant seekers of God have been brought down by unrepentant sinners and that is why the very keen saints and spiritual directors warn us about such associations. As for the woman at the well, re-read the Gospel. Her repentant heart which was so clearly searching for the truth is what clearly drove Jesus to find her at the well. Being God, He knew her heart was screaming for Him and so He waited for her noon hour trip to the well. Jesus did with her what the Father did with his prodigal son: he went to meet him while the son was half way.

    5. Am I going insane or has somebody trolled this entire thread and turned it into a debate? Please don’t take my words out of context- I am the author of this article and the message which was quite simple has been hijacked. Thank you…

    6. No, Victoria. There is no hijacking. There has been a discussion flowing from what you wrote, which is what happens when people read what an author writes and there is an opening for discussion. Through such discussions people have a chance to ponder on different issues and learn, which is, I suppose, the purpose behind your writing, our reading, and the discussion ensuing from that activity. We know that you are the author of the article and I thank you for it. I also thank all those who have expressed their thoughts on it and engaged in discussion because that is what reasonable people who are searching for the truth do.

    7. Do WE “win souls for Christ? …or does Christ win souls through our witnessing to Him at all times, and through our showing Him to others?

    8. Nope. Never said it can. Catholicism is always about engagement, and it is hands on. This is the way Jesus meets us where we are while knowing where He wants to take us.

      But one quibble I do have with much of the language that we tend to use when it comes to evangelization, new or old, is stuff like “WWJD?” and “winning souls for Christ.” Terms like that are well meaning, but a bit problematic, and we should be a little more careful.

      For the reason that as Catholics, it’s not about what Jesus would do, but What Jesus Did, What Jesus Does, and What Jesus Is Doing Right Now, as suggested by the way in which the Sacraments work. Moreover, we can do nothing if not for Christ. We can only extend an invitation to engage with Him and extend it repeatedly. That also involves knowing Who He truly IS. “Who do you say that I AM?” is as pertinent and persistent a question as any, and it’s one that confronts us every day.

    9. I think that what you might be referring to or grappling with is better encapsulated by having a sense of holy boundaries, detachment, and a healthy sense of distance. It comes with the territory of learning charity, and charity is not charity without the Truth. This is crucial, particularly in an age and culture that places a high premium on sentimentality. Faith and love atrophy if not shared and given away. But the Truth safeguards love, faith, and hope– given that we all entertain false ideas of all three until we learn better. Having a holy sense of boundaries allows us to step back, and they also give us the space we need to forgive when necessary, since forgiveness of ourselves and others is crucial to our ability to love, since it means being holistically receptive to God’s love. If that’s what you mean and are trying to get at, you’re spot on.

      I apologize for the length.

      Frankly, in most of our discussions of Charity in the Catholic blogosphere, we often neglect abuse in ways that make it seem as if the only kind worth talking about is the sexual abuse of minors. Related to any such discussion of Love and being afraid or unafraid to love are two basic ways of dumbing down the Catholic faith that enables abuse of all kinds: leaning either too strict or too lax. A lot of Pope Francis’s pontificate so far involves precisely the dangers of those two extremes in so many ways, and those extremes are manifest in almost every Catholicism-related discussion: for example, a strong Catholic identity is very important. There is nothing “uncharitable” or “unloving” about respecting differences while also knowing why one is Catholic and not something else. One also cannot “go out to the peripheries of human existence” and “make a mess” with nothing, because one wouldn’t even know what to share with others without first knowing what one has received. But what also nurtures a strong Catholic identity is evangelization: talents and gifts atrophy and die on the vine when we hoard them to ourselves or bury them. What is so telling is the general reaction to Pope Francis, especially the two extreme ends of the Church and the larger culture when it comes to what people think of as “religion” and what they presume about what the Church “should” change and why. That Pope Francis makes everyone uncomfortable is a good thing, because that’s what Catholic orthodoxy does. And those who think that Pope Benedict XVI by contrast didn’t make them uncomfortable (or only made certain people that they don’t like, not them, uncomfortable…) should read him more extensively and more closely. If one actually asks one’s self what it would mean to live what Pope Benedict taught, it’s not hard to see someone like Francis coming. The saint has no tolerance for sin, but deep, abundant mercy for sinners.

      It’s not that we don’t associate with or shun active, unrepentant sinners, but part of loving them is that we must know where our priorities lie, and we must be able to do what is necessary to protect and steward our marriages and our families as well as what God has given us. It’s about knowing how to share while not casting our pearls before swine. It’s about keeping a healthy distance and balance: Jesus always meets each one of us where we are. The way the Eucharist works should tell us as much. But it is also our choice to let Him in. And likewise, they may not let us or Him in, just as we need to discern well what they would bring into our families. Prudence and caution is crucial. That’s where an examination of conscience is always necessary, along with confronting any fears we may have that get in the way of loving others by bringing those fears before the Lord in prayer. Distance also acknowledges that we need rest. Even the Lord retreated from the crowds at times to pray. In the desert, He too felt exhaustion. But it also means that He is with us when we feel that our energy is flagging and when we feel tempted not to love.

      To use an example of prudence that hits very, very close to home regarding who we closely associate with while not shunning anyone, many, many families have toxic relatives. Some of them can be narcissists who have no sense of boundaries and some are even Catholic anti-Catholics. Worse, they might even try to get around these kinds of issues by hiding behind being “nice,” to say nothing of “choice.” There may even be constant dubious appeals to their own authority that will teach you like nothing else will the value of the First Commandment and how it rightly orders all of the others. The thing about “nice” is that it discourages against having any true sense of sin. The problem with being devoid of a true sense of sin means giving other people permission to make up new sins for you and everyone else: the most mortal of mortal sins, it seems, is that you’re… “not nice,” and in some families it’s that you aren’t giving your parents or your elders permission to beat you up and pull you down. Moreover, someone who keeps harping on their “right” to “choose” this or that (and I am not referring specifically to abortion here at all) will often not confront what they’re choosing and the consequence of those choices. It is one thing for them to have a “right” to their choices, it’s another thing altogether for them to demand that others celebrate their bad choices or find them acceptable and worthy of admiration. We are not obligated to do any such thing, and it is different from love and extending them a helping hand. Knowing these differences, I think, helps us to let go and free us up to love.

      Governments are not the only bodies or collectives of people who insist on violating the consciences of others. Family members can do as much also, and do it in far more subtle and unholy ways. Some with “authority” think they can do it with impunity for forgetting that authority is always meant to be stewarded rightly in the service of others (and it’s one reason why I can’t stress regular Confession for parents and children enough). Note that many a family member who abuses his or her authority will almost invariably read St. Paul one-sidedly, forgetting the part about how they should never provoke their children lest the latter become discouraged, and tend to be confused at the part of the Gospel where Jesus “pits father against son, daughter against mother…,” etc. precisely because only He truly unites, and He is therefore divisive for never allowing a false peace and always compelling a choice for or against Him. Thinking, for example, that I have some moral obligation to entrust my child and his or her faith for any long periods of time to any family “elder” who does not value and even openly disregards what the Catholic Church teaches would be naive and imprudent. But it does not mean that I “shun” them by telling my children not to associate with them, even if I may limit our time with them. For these reasons and many others, the Domestic Church does matter. Stewarding it and nurturing it with charity always requires balanced gatekeeping born only of a holy fear of God.

      We can only do what we can, and do what is right and just, and leave the rest to God. It is not our job to save unrepentant sinners or convert them, but simply to try and keep trying to show them Jesus with whatever He gives us. Sometimes, it has to start as small as a simple prayer. It may be all we are capable of at a particular moment, but it’s not exactly nothing. It costs us nothing to smile (and this can be very difficult to learn when it comes to dealing with difficult people). Some people actually are occasions of sin, and it’s more than okay, and even best to limit one’s contact with them, and the requirements of love at this particular moment may be to work behind the scenes to help them. Some avenues may be blocked, so we try to find others, and try to stay out of the Lord’s way. That takes time and patience. Nobody is beyond the reach of God, and the Creator Spirit– the Holy Spirit– is a creative Spirit. He will show us how to get creative and teach us how to engage others more effectively, even though it will not come all at once, and we will make mistakes. In the process, He also changes our hearts.

      Christ asks us to love and pray for those who hurt us and even hate us. Oftentimes, the learning curve of charity when dealing with such individuals is very steep. And here, it may well be just as important to think about what God doesn’t ask us to do as well as what He does ask us to do. He does not ask us to be their best friend, to always do what they want, to confide in or trust them, or allow them to undermine us in the way that we parent our children. He does not ask us to be their favorite emotional scapegoat or punching bag, or to offer to be an excuse for their own failings– false and misguided guilt kills hope, and it is contrary to living in the Truth. When He was condemned to die on the Cross, Jesus did not say “everything is all My fault”; He said, “if I have done wrong, then show me the wrong that I have done. If not, then why do you strike Me?” and also “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do!” Bearing wrongs patiently still acknowledges that what is wrong is wrong. He asks us to carry our crosses, and to sacrifice and do penance for them, and there are many different ways to do the latter. But He doesn’t ask us to throw prudence to the wind and give our entire lives to them– we serve their human dignity; we do not serve their nonsense or enable their abuse of ourselves and others. Instead, we are to give and entrust our entire lives to Jesus Christ, being willing to learn from Him over and over that without Him we can do nothing, and that nothing is impossible for God.

    10. What a learned response! That is exactly what I mean, but you have said it so much better! Thank-you. Your lengthy response has provided me with much food for spiritual pondering…God is always gifting us through others. Thanks be to Him and to you again.

    11. Another thing, rereading my post: I didn’t mean to suggest that Pope Francis’s pontificate per se involves the problems of leaning too strict or too lax; rather that he’s been addressing those twin tendencies and how problematic they are. Any time people on one extreme are defensive when they think he means to single them out, the tendency he addresses also applies just as much to the other extreme.

      That’s why he makes us uncomfortable in a good way.

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