JL 2: 12-18
PS 51: 3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 AND 17
2 COR 5: 20 - 6:2
MT 6: 1-6, 16-18
A few Lents ago I picked up a book entitled Suspicion and Faith, written by Merold Westphal, who is both a philosophy professor at Fordham and a Protestant minister. The book suggested reading the so-called “masters of suspicion” (Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche) as a Lenten discipline. I don’t mean doing so as a penance (although most of my friends seem to see that kind of reading as masochistic), but as a kind of whetstone against which to sharpen one’s own practice of the faith, by taking seriously some of the most significant critiques ever pointed at religious belief and practice. The goal is not to land where they landed, rejecting religion, but to take seriously the unhealthy attitudes and practices they saw and recommit to a better, more authentic practice of religion.
Paradoxically, while Westphal certainly gives space for the masters of suspicion to challenge the complacencies in our faith lives, he goes a step further and accuses them of plagiarizing the Bible, which he sees as the most “irreligious” religious book in the world. Today’s gospel is a perfect example: Jesus spends the whole gospel warning people how easily practices that are intended to foster conversion and humility can become sources of self-congratulations, and how easily can practices that are intended to bring us into greater solidarity with others become a painkiller. He suggests that the more modern critiques of religion are in fact simply plagiarizing from Christianity itself (or at least, Christianity at its most honest) in ferreting out all the places where “bad faith” can hide. I have been struck for many years by how much Lent paradoxically says that doing the right thing can be the problem: fast and pray and give alms, but beware. Not that they are bad, but that they are dangerous if we let them create a hierarchy of holiness or righteousness. Is it any wonder that Jesus’ most biting critiques are all aimed at religious authorities, who are perhaps most liable to allowing religious performance to become a means of inflating the ego instead of transforming it?
As much as we might think of Jesus being all about forgiveness and “niceness,” he spent a lot of time challenging people; I suggest that he had no patience with sins of the ego, sins that inflated one’s self-importance and supposed holiness by shows of good deeds or religious observance. However, he was endlessly patient with sins of the shadow - the things that people were ashamed of, the things that rendered them unclean or a public sinner or an outcast.
Perhaps a Lenten goal should be to listen to the things that don’t fit our confirmation bias about ourselves; that doesn’t mean getting sucked into other people’s negativity or making our self-worth depend on other people’s approval, but asking again about motives and motivations that may look shiny on the surface but maybe hide deeper and less pristine impulses. That’s quite different from a “repentance” that just focuses on things we have done wrong - that’s a good thing too, but it just might keep us from seeing the good things which have become a problem for us by giving us space to become complacent, self-righteous or even judgmental.
Patrick Cousins is a member of the Department of Campus Ministry.