Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Beware of over scrupulosity and pretence

Freedom of spirit to open one's heart to God in prayer relies not only on keeping his commandments with integrity and honesty, but also active concern for others in need of justice, freedom, safety, food, healing, compassion. The good life that prophets exhort the children of Israel to pursue is about more than ceasing to do evil. It is about taking up the cause of others who have been wronged, defending the oppressed, and protecting those who are most vulnerable and alone in life, the example given being orphans and widows, rejected by families too poor to look after them. Today we can compile our own list of vulnerable and isolated people for whom even a high principled welfare state fails to care adequately. 

'Cease to do evil, learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.' (Isaiah 1:17)

To avoid deceiving ourselves about our motivations and intentions, we ask God to probe our consciences and make us aware of our inconsistencies and failures of perception. 

'Prove me O Lord and try me; test my mind and my heart' (Psalm 26:2)

Jesus, however, is critical of the tendency in religious piety to become over scrupulous and preoccupied with relatively trivial failings and losing sight of the bigger picture of who we are and what we do with our lives, so self examination must always bear this in mind.

'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former.' (Matt 23:23) 

This accords with the prophetic call to 'do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with .. God' (Micah 6:8), as the Mosaic law intends, above and beyond all its detailed prescriptions for living well. We are challenged to be realistic in self assessment.

'For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.' (Romans 12:31)

Jesus reminds us that 'Anyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted' (Matt 23:12), and this is re-iterated in the letters of James 'Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.' (James 4:10) and Peter 'Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.'  

This is always about honest realism, not faked self-abasement. In the Lord's Prayer, as part of daily prayer we say; 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us', there is no need to sin against ourselves by self-deceit. 

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