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On Self-Justification

34th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Paul of Thebes; St. John Calabytes / Col. 3.12-16; Luke 18.18-27.

F/S/HS. Brothers and sisters, two of our greatest contemporary saints—Saint Maria Skobtsova and Saint Paisios of the Holy Mountain—say that there is one sin in particular that especially haunts modern day Christian humanity.  It is an ancient sin, going all the way back to the Garden of Paradise.  But it is uniquely prevalent and flagrant amongst Christians in these modern times, observes St. Maria and St. Paisios.  This sin is the sin of self-justification.  Holy God, I will never inherit Your Kingdom, St. Paisios cries out, I will never lay peacefully in the bosom of Abraham, until I can root out my self-justifying ways.

What is the sin of self-justification?  And where in the Scriptures can examples of it be found, including in this morning’s Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man? 

My need to appear right or righteous often reveals me as a self-justifier.  My desire to avoid having my sins exposed reveals me as a self-justifier.  When in my mind or my speech I compare or contrast my good deeds to another’s deeds, I reveal myself as a self-justifier. 

Self-justifiers create subtle or not subtle excuses to explain away and dodge their hurtful and sinful actions.  And if I am caught red-handed, I self-justify whenever I invoke some version of the ultimate excuse: The devil made me do it.  All the while, observes St. Maria, I reveal myself as blind to my pride and hard of heart.  Hence, self-justification is a spiritual sickness.   

Where in the Scriptures do we see examples of this ugly and wretched sin of self-justification?  From the beginning, dear ones; from the beginning!  Asked a question by God as to why he transgressed, Adam casts blame outside himself for his sin, by blaming both God and Eve—The woman You gave me, gave me of the tree, and I ate.  And Eve similarly—The serpent beguiled me, and I ate (Gn. 3.12-13.  No ownership of guilt or blame by Adam or Eve, no self-accusation, but instead justifying themselves by casting blame elsewhere, on others.

In Exodus ch. 32, Aaron blames the people for his decision to make an idol for them to worship.  In 1 Samuel, Saul blames both the prophet Samuel and the people for his disobedience in not waiting for the prophet’s instructions, and for offering sacrifices, which Samuel alone was to offer.  Proverbs 21.2 states: Every man appears righteous to himself.  Or another translation of this same verse: Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.  Three chapters earlier, in Proverbs 16.2, the wise sage laments: Every high-hearted heart is unclean before the Lord.

In the New Testament, the subtle and sneaky sin of self-justification parades itself before us time and ugly time again.  In the parable of the    Publican and the Pharisee (which we encounter four Sundays from now, in preparation for beginning Holy Lent three weeks later), a man, a Pharisee, stands upfront in his church, justifying himself by enumerating to himself his many virtues, thanking God that he is not like that Publican standing behind him, in the back of the church, who, compared to him, has done nothing good (Luke 18. 10-14).

Two chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus indicts the Pharisees yet again, this time related to their love of their money: You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.  For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God (Luke 16.15).

The Apostle Paul, who came to love the God of Isreal, increasingly found Israel’s very own people stubborn and self-justifying.  For they, Paul says in Romans 10.3, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.

And then in this morning’s Gospel, from Luke ch. 18, the same chapter wherein the parable of the Publican and Pharisee is found, yet another example of the sneaky way that self-justification plays itself out in a human life. 

Sisters and brothers, get your microscope in hand and look with me deeply into this narrative of Jesus’ encounter with this rich young man.  The young man approaches Jesus, to test him, the narrative says.  In other words, our church fathers alert us, there is a secret need somewhere deep in this young man’s soul to justify himself by showing himself, and showing Jesus, how good he is.  Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

Why do you call Me Good?  No one is good but One, that is, God, Jesus answers the man.  Now, notice what Jesus next says, a brilliant strategy to begin unlocking and exposing this man’s self-justifying ways.  You know the Commandments: Do not commit adultery.  Do not murder.  Do not steal.  Do not bear false witness.  Honor your father and your mother.

To which the young man responds: All these things I have kept from my youth.  “Lord have mercy,” laments St. Maria Skobtsova.  “Lord have mercy,” because no sooner has this young man heard from Jesus that no one but God alone is good than he claims his goodness to Jesus, his righteousness, because he has upheld the commandments.  Hence the blindness and hardness of heart of the self-justifier. 

In other words, so immersed is the self-justifier in him or herself, in the need to be correct, that I am blind and deaf to seeing and hearing the voice right in front of me, a voice exposing my self-justifying ways.  

Yet expose Jesus does … by now going for the jugular!  A long pause from Jesus; a long look into the man’s eyes.  Followed by these words to the young man: You still lack one thingSell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Such words cut to the heart of this man.  Perhaps he realizes in this very moment that his self-proclaimed goodness in keeping all commandments was but a smokescreen to justify his deeper sin, namely his avarice—his love for his money and his material possessions.  Upon hearing Jesus’ words, he becomes very sorrowful, for he was very rich.  And so he turns from Jesus, who has totally exposed his self-justifying ways, and walks away.

Hence, another valuable and most hopeful lesson about self-justification.  If anything is going to cut through the blindness and hardness of heart of the self-justifier, if anything is going to expose our self-justifying ways, it is our Lord’s words in the multitudes of ways that Christ’s words come to us: in the Scriptures, the hymnology and Sacramental life of our church, the teachings of our church fathers and mothers, in our prayer life, in our confessional life, and in the advocacy of our church to strive to root out all of our self-justifying ways that keep us from becoming Christ-like.

Hagiographic tradition has it that Jesus loved this rich young man.  Tradition has it that this young man’s conscience so needled and convicted him in the days and weeks and months after his encounter with Jesus, that He eventually did exactly as Jesus requested of him—he sells his possessions and comes and follows Jesus.  Tradition has it that this young man may very well have been Joseph of Arimathaea, who played such a central role in our Lord’s burial.

Here too is our task dear brothers and sisters.  The task of listening to God, the task of obediently abiding by the teachings of Scripture and our church on the sin of self-justification, the task of seeking to root out from our souls and expose the ugly sin of self-justification.

No greater tool, no greater medicine is given unto us to do this rooting out, this exposing, than the Jesus Prayer, which that Publican, standing at the back of the church only a half chapter earlier in Luke 18, who silently chanted over and over, his head hung in humble adoration and prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner!  F/S/HS