Read Luke 11:37-44
Every religious tradition has a set of rules that helps distinguish insiders from outsiders. In my tradition (at least in the past) that involved no dancing, no drinking, wearing nice clothes to church, etc. I imagine in your tradition the rules might be a little different but the point is the same – to differentiate us from them. Where’s the danger in that? Well, Jesus says there’s plenty. First, we tend to pick the rules we like to keep, the rules that are easy for us to keep – so that we do indeed look different from “sinners” (at least on the outside, on the inside we have a way of looking a lot like them). And we create these little systems by which we reward one another for keeping the rules that are easy for us to keep. We puff ourselves up and put others down. And that’s why Jesus gets so upset. He’s upset with our self-deception. He’s upset with our self righteousness. He’s upset with the fact that we think we’ve arrived without his help. He’s upset, because he loves us and he knows that our game of self-righteousness is mortally dangerous. Unlike the grosser sins where our distance from God is fairly obvious, we’ve whitewashed our tombs so that no one, at times not even ourselves, knows the deadness inside. This is dangerous because we tend not do anything about the sins we are unaware of. It’s like undiagnosed high blood pressure. Self-righteousness is the silent killer of a life of faith.
Lent, itself, can be a practice that when done poorly perpetuates self-righteousness. One of my professors, Roger Olson, recently wrote of the trend of more and more Baptists celebrating Lent
. He doesn't view Lent as an evil, but rather, something that's not necessary for the life of faith. As one of those Baptists he talks about, I appreciate his article. First, I appreciate it because I firmly believe that wisdom is often found in a dissenting voice especially when that dissent is about popular trends (This keeps me squarely in the Baptist tradition!). Second, I appreciate the warning that whether we observe Lent or not, the issue of our spiritual vitality cannot be reduced to our religious practices even if it involves them. Observing Lent or not observing Lent, just like the washing of hands or not washing hands, isn't what matters. Rather, Jesus says, what's required is obedience to all of God's ways, a complete surrendering of our lives to him. When we reduce our faith to either keeping or not keeping a certain ritual, we run the risk of thinking that by keeping our small list of rules, we have arrived at God's will for our lives.
Truth be told, I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping up with my Lenten commitments. And at least for the moment, I’m glad I’m not good at it. You see, I’ve been a Baptist for a long time. I’m pretty good at being a Baptist. I know all the ins and outs of keeping the outside of my Baptist cup pretty clean, as I’m sure you know how to keep the outside of your Methodist or Episcopalian or Catholic cup pretty clean as well. But I’m not so good at Lent. I’ve already messed up plenty this year. You'll notice I have not blogged like I said I would. Remarkably, like I said, I’ve found that failure to be a gift – a reminder that I too am a sinner in need of grace, a work in progress, a person who though not perfect, is still being made perfect by the One who already is.