Why it’s Good

Some years ago, I heard a story about an amazing transformation in the lives of inmates in a prison in Brazil. It’s a really neat story, but I‘m not sure how true it actually is. When I researched it, I discovered that lots of people tell the tale as thought they were the ones who broke the story. It’s been retold so many times now, it’s taken on something of a hokie Christian folklore character, but I think it still serves as a good illustration for understanding the richer meaning of Good Friday.

There was a terrible prison in Brazil that housed all sorts of violent criminals. It was hot and filthy, with poor living conditions, and very little hope among anyone for release. There was one wing of the facility where prisoners were taken to be tortured.

One day either one or three men (depending on who’s telling the story) got permission to try a new kind of prison reform. They decided to take the chaotic environment and create a Christian community. They shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with the prisoners and worked to build relationships among them based on loving one another and caring for each other, in just the way Jesus taught his disciples.

The reform was so successful that there were only three staff members overseeing all the prisoners. The prisoners took responsibility for all the operations – even escorting one another to court dates and holding the keys to all the locks. There was hope among the inmates. There was a sense of brotherhood, mutual respect and care. All aspects of quality of life improved.

A researcher went to visit this place, having heard of this amazing transformation. He was greeted at the door by the inmate with all the keys to the facility. That man was convicted of murder. The convict told the researcher that their lives had been made better by learning about Jesus. They understood what Jesus meant about the Good News of the kingdom of heaven and discipleship. As he toured the researcher around they came to the wing where the tortures had taken place. The tour guide told him there was one last prisoner in that room. The researcher wanted to see him. When the door was unlocked and pushed open, there on a table was a crucifix carved by one of the inmates. “This is the prisoner who’s taking all the punishment for us,” the guide said. “He’s taking all our sins upon himself and freeing us from our wrongdoings.”

Regardless of how true this story is, it gives us an important means for understanding what’s good about Good Friday. The prisoners were able to get to a point in the development of their faith to see that the Passion story isn’t simply about the death of Jesus. It’s about the death of all that stands in the way of us living into the promise of our salvation. It’s not that Jesus died on the cross so much as that Jesus carried our guilt, our fears, our shame, all the seven deadly sins, all of that to the cross to release the hold they have on us. These things that hold us back from living peacefully with one another cannot triumph over the love that God has for us. And it was out of love for us, that Jesus did this thing on Good Friday. The inmates enjoyed a better life because they were able to see the cross as a means for liberty. They accepted that they were found guilty of their crimes in the law courts, but they refused to let that guilt rob them of their God-given agency to move forward in life; to make positive changes; to make their world a better place. The crucifix was kept in the torture room for them to visit whenever they were tempted to re-torture themselves with reminders of their failures. They experienced freedom in that prison, yet so many of us on the other side of the jail bars are imprisoned.

Jesus takes upon himself the sins of the world – the failings and shortcomings of a flawed humanity; the selfish and greedy things we do, the lack of care we demonstrate for the things we don’t do; the things we forget, and the things we can’t forget. Most of all – and this is an important feature of the good part of Good Friday – Jesus takes away the guilt we carry that we use to crucify ourselves for our own faults. You know how it goes: you speak harshly to yourself for your failures. We are our own worst enemies. Jesus also takes away the guilt we carry to crucify others for their faults: we think and say harsh things to remind others of their failures. All of that guilt… went up on the cross. Jesus carried it all up the path to Golgotha and fixed them there, out in the open, so that we cannot hide our shame, and guilt can no longer be used against us. All of it died there on that cross with Christ. Jesus took all our sins upon himself and he carried them into their death. Thus we are free to move forward with our lives.

The inmates of the Brazilian prison understood the cross in the same way we understand it in the words we use in our Eucharistic Prayers. Prayer 1 in Rite 1 is all about the meaning and significance of Christ’s sacrifice, and what it means for us as disciples. The prayers of the last 40-days have offered insight to the nature of the salvation we enjoy.

We said that Jesus suffered death upon the cross for our redemption. Jesus made one oblation, or offering, of himself once. It was a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. There is no need for further sacrifice – of ourselves or of others. There is no further need to guilt ourselves or anyone else for shortcomings, failures or sins. It doesn’t get anyone anywhere anymore. We say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Those things we call sins – those things that get in our way to enjoying a life of peace and love with others – have been taken away. It is not right for us to reinvent them or restore the power they once had over us.

This doesn’t mean that we are no longer living in a fallen state. We still make mistakes, and sin, and come up short of the kind of people we’re called to be. We acknowledge this when we say that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the Table of the Lord. But this is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. And so we are justified to stand before God, to serve the world in Christ’s name, and to take our place at the heavenly banquet, regardless of our human failings and shortcomings. God has mercy on us, and we ought to show the same mercy to one another.

The sacrifice of Jesus is more than just the account of the conviction and execution of a good man. The shocking storyline of the Passion and death drives home more than just breathtaking violence. This is the Saviour Jesus Christ we’re talking about, and like all of his other teaching moments, we are called to look at the event of his crucifixion as pointing to something of far greater significance. In order to do that, we have to get past the horrific violence – the violence that was done to Jesus the man, and the violence that we do to ourselves and one another on a daily basis. We are Christ’s disciples, and we live in freedom because of the cross … and that’s why we call today good.

The Seven Deadly Sins continued: Pride

The disciples ask Jesus about the sin of a blind man. As disciples of the Messiah, they ought to know sin when they see it. They ask a very complex question. They don’t simply inquire about a man who happened to have been blind his whole life. They specify, “who sinned, this man or his parents.” The disciples have decided that not only is his affliction is the result of some grievous sin, but that it might be such a grievous sin that it spans generations. His parents are very likely even worse sinners than the blind man! Clearly there’s a lot of sin going on around here.

Jesus sees where this line of questioning is going. Before they can spread their diagnosis of sin even further, so that the whole village is responsible for sinning this poor man into blindness, Jesus restores his sight. That should be the end of the story; but no. It sets into motion a series of encounters that illustrate for us our next study of the Seven Deadly Sins. This week’s sin: Pride.

The blind man actually plays a very important role in his community. He is the receptacle for all the anxieties of the town. Whatever they may lack, they can attribute to this man’s sinful state. Wherever their own shortcomings call attention to where they could improve, the blind man’s perpetual state means that they don’t have to. The man is the scapegoat for everything wrong with their society. As long as he remains a blind beggar, they don’t have to change any part of themselves to be in right relationship with God. Scapegoats are someone we can point to as being worse than we are. I might not be perfectly righteous, but at least I’m not that guy.

We need people we can designate as unfortunate, so that our pride has some traction. Look how righteous we are compared to that sinner. We can even be condescending to those people, because there’s nothing they can do about it. That poor, poor man. If only he and his parents weren’t such sinners, they could enjoy all the benefits we do. Even when we’re at our worst, at least we’re doing better than those unfortunate people.

The formerly blind man convinces the neighbors that he is in fact the person they thought he was, but not until he has to tell them what happened over and over. They don’t want to listen to him, because of the implication his story has on them. If the formerly blind man can no longer serve the community as the receptacle for their sins, then who will? They take the man to a higher power, a more definitive authority, those whose righteousness is above reproach: the Pharisees.

The Pharisees are the people in the community designated to interpret righteousness and holiness, and identify sinners. They do little else in life than pronounce judgment on what is proper and what is sinful, and no one questions it, or them. The Pharisees are the benchmark, and they take full advantage of their unquestioned position in society. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes the Pharisees thusly, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” Jesus paints a picture of very prideful people.

The Pharisees cannot explain what happened to take away the man’s sins, so they have to come up with another repository for the anxieties of the town. They declare the next scapegoat is obviously the one who robbed them of their last scapegoat. They reason, “This man [Jesus, who cured their unfortunate blind beggar] is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Their pronouncement gives the community an even bigger place to hide their sins, shortcomings and failures of righteousness and justice.

The anxiety in the town has gotten itself so worked up at this point, the people look for certainty. They want to make sure their blessed way of life cannot be threatened any more. They ask, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

They decide to go to the source of the man’s sins: his parents. Now the man who was formerly blind is an adult. His parents have nothing to do with him anymore. And they really don’t want to find themselves in the spotlight of this controversy. They deflect the questions. They redirect the focus away from themselves. They too, perhaps more than anyone, need their son to be a blind beggar, so that whatever sin they may be guilty of can be borne by someone else. They would even sacrifice their own child as restitution for some unknown sin they may or may not have committed. As long as their son is blind, they can walk tall.

The Deadly Sin of Pride in this community finds its place in the setting of some above others. In this case Pride needs a shame to compare itself over and against. The people are sure of their ability to demonstrate their righteousness because there’s someone there who can more easily demonstrate his shamefulness. They refuse to believe that God’s grace is ultimately more powerful than any sin they could imagine. What was the sin the blind man or his parents were guilty of? No one knows, but it must have been a doozy.

God’s grace and mercy are far more powerful than any human transgression. If it were the other way around – if our sins could thwart the grace and mercy of God, then we would be more powerful than God. But the deadly sin of Pride doesn’t seek to overthrow God. It seeks to keep other people away from God.

If we look to other people for the source of righteousness, we’re setting the bar of salvation too low. It is too easy to create an image of ourselves that’s better than we actually are, and thus make others feel unworthy. God wants us to seek the source of righteousness and holiness in Jesus Christ, whose humility is kindness, gentleness and generosity; more in keeping with God’s desire for us.

Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities. It interferes with an individual’s recognition of the grace of God. The townspeople in today’s Gospel want so much to know that their own righteousness is Godly, that they’re willing to withhold mercy to one of their own in order to maintain the illusion of righteousness. If he can’t be a blind beggar, he has no place in their town. He serves no purpose in their Pride – quite the opposite: he reveals their unrighteousness. The Pharisees said, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

The deadly Sin of Pride has been called the sin from which all others arise. The book The Travelers’ Guide to Hell calls Pride, “the mother of all sins… the thin line between righteousness and self-righteousness.” In our Gospel example today, Pride asks, how could a sinner have an encounter with the divine and achieve righteousness when all we and our obvious righteousness are overlooked? Why didn’t the Messiah seek out the Pharisees among us to confer grace? If anyone deserves it, it’s them.

Pride is about the notion that we deserve grace; that somehow by our actions God can be extra-pleased with us. But that’s not how God works. We are all already blessed more than we can understand or imagine. We cannot work our way to a better position with God. What we can do, is set our broad phylacteries and long fringes aside and let all people be loved and accepted by God simply because we are God’s own creation.

The townspeople in the Gospel are working hard to convince themselves and everyone else that they are assured of salvation, and this man, who seems never to have even tried – why bother, he’s been cursed since before he was even born – he has it. His sight negates everything the people ever said about him and his status as a sinner, and by extension, the illusion they maintain of their sinlessness. That’s their Pride.

The man whose sight is restored demonstrates the corresponding virtue of Humility. He doesn’t call out to Jesus as he walks by. He doesn’t presume anything. He’s surrounded by presumptive people. He doesn’t even try to support the theory that he’s a victim of his parent’s sins, as some have speculated. He simply exists as best he can by the grace of God. And Jesus comes to him. Jesus is attracted to him. Here’s where it gets really interesting.

After the dust-up has settled in town over the miraculous healing, Jesus returns to the man. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem on important business. There’s no need for him to turn back. But God incarnate seeks out the humble. The formerly blind man is even more humble now. Before, when he was blind, he had a community around him. Now he has his sight and is alone.

It is clear that this man is now sin-free, but what really sets him apart from the other people in the story is not the transformation from sinner to sinless. It’s that he never holds his new-found righteousness over and against anyone else. If anyone in this town is justified to do that, it would be the formerly blind man. But he doesn’t. He accepts his gift of sight and invites others to celebrate with him. God seeks out the humble, and Jesus returns to him.

According to our tradition, the Virtue Humility is modest behavior, selflessness, and the giving of respect. Humility is also a spirit of self-examination and the application of charity toward people with whom we disagree. Humility means giving credit where credit is due, and not unfairly glorifying one’s own self. These are the things the townspeople fail to understand.

Humility also involves reverence for those who have wisdom and those who selflessly teach in love. This is what the formerly blind man tried to do after gaining his sight, but it goes unheeded. Humility involves refraining from despair. No where do we read that the man despairs his new status – even if it means expulsion from his community. It requires the ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation with a peaceful heart and a gracious attitude. All these things the formerly blind mad embodies. He does this so well and so naturally, that it attracts the attention of God, and an encore visit from the Messiah.

Have you experienced Pride in your dealings – either your own or somebody else’s? Where have you experienced Humility – either your own or somebody else’s? How did those experiences affect you? Take some time to reflect on where taking a humble approach in a situation might yield better results that taking a Prideful tack. If you had to do a moment of your life all over again, how would the outcome change if you exercised humility rather than pride?

I leave you with two quotes:
Proverbs 11:2 – “When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.”
Luke 18:14 – “[Jesus said] all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”