Return to Home

 

From the Bishop
An Ash Wednesday Meditation

The Pharisee said, “I thank thee,
O God, that I am not like other men.”
(Luke 18:11)

All of us have the tendency to compare ourselves to others – either favorably or unfavorably. It is a behavior that we learn at a very early age, and it remains with us as adults. It is a spirit of competition and rivalry. Am I smarter than he is? Am I more successful than she is? More popular, or better looking, or more whatever, than this or that person? Sometimes such comparisons lead to a sense of superiority – and sometimes to a feeling of inferiority. We’re better than some and worse than others.

This sort of comparison is what’s going on in the parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in St. Luke 18:9-14. As the Pharisee prays in the temple, he looks down upon the sinful tax collector, praying at some distance away. He thanks God that he is more pious, more generous, and more obedient than other men are. He takes pride in himself, for he is better than others. But God is not impressed by his self-righteousness. Instead, God justifies the poor sinful man who recognizes his need for God’s forgiveness and mercy. “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!’” Jesus concludes the story saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus reminds us of the clear biblical pattern: God lifts up the lowly and the humble, and He puts down the mighty and the proud.

What a contrast when you compare these two men who went to pray in the temple that day: One whose chest is puffed up with self-righteousness and pride, and the other who beats his breast with a sense of unworthiness and guilt. One who looks God straight in the eye and says, “I thank thee O God that I am not like other men – I’m special! I’m better!” And the other, eyes cast downward to the ground, who says simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Cross of ashesThe call of Lent is a reminder about comparisons. Ash Wednesday reminds us that rather than comparing ourselves to others, we are meant to compare ourselves to Jesus. He is the pattern and standard for our behavior and attitudes, for He is the perfect man, He is God Incarnate, and He alone is without sin. He is the one true model and example by which all other lives are measured. In Him, we see what God intends us to be like, for He is perfect love in action. Jesus is the measure for our self-evaluation and comparison. In Him we see what love looks like in interacting with others, and love is always the standard of God’s evaluation of you and me. 

In writing to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul is describing Jesus as he talks about the attributes of love. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” (I Cor. 13:4-6) That’s what Jesus is like – but what about us? How are we by comparison?

May God save us from smug self-righteousness that puffs up and makes us look down on others. May He give us humble and contrite hearts, that we may know His mercy and forgiveness. On this day of penitence, let us confess once again that we are too often the very opposite of the love we see in Jesus. For we are impatient and unkind; we are jealous and boastful; we have been arrogant and rude. We insist on our own way; we are irritable and resentful; we’ve rejoiced in the wrong and not in the right. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Lenten season that begins with Ash Wednesday is meant to be a time for self-examination, a time to take a spiritual self-inventory, not for the purpose of comparing ourselves to others, but to Jesus. It begins when we ask God to help us see ourselves, not as others may see us, but as God in His mercy and love sees us. We need God’s help to see ourselves as we really are, not as what we so often pretend to be. And of course, God knows us better than we know ourselves – for He is the one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”

But this is where the good news of the Gospel enters in: Though God knows our faults and failures, still He loves us and reaches out to us in mercy. In spite of our sin-full-ness, He forgives us and reconciles us to Himself, by the blood of Jesus on the cross, who died to save sinners, like you and me. He sees the potential for good that is within us and draws out the best in us by the inner working of His Holy Spirit, “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  (Ephesians 3:20)

Let us pray.

Lord, during this season of Lent, make us humble and loving servants of your Kingdom. Help us to see the goodness in others and to love them as you love them. Take away from us pride and self-righteousness, and fill our hearts with a deeper love for Jesus and for others each day of our lives. Amen.

 

Faithfully in Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker
Bishop of Fort Worth