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Holiness: Being Emptied Out for Others and Avoiding the Danger of Pharisee-ism

By Deacon Keith Fournier
October 28th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Pharisee stands as a warning to anyone of us who succumb to that temptation. It is a daily struggle. They prided themselves on their strict adherence to the Law - and believed they were being devout. Yet, they had become incapable of seeing the Source and Fulfillment of the Law, even as He lived in their midst. We can easily become those kind of men and women, if we fail to stay in a fresh and ongoing intimate communion with the Lord.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - Our readings at Mass on Sunday called point us to empty ourselves of ourselves, be filled with the life of God and be poured out for others. Jesus, in that sermon he gave on the mountain, made it clear, "Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God."  (Matt. 5:3) Then, He showed us the way on that other mountain, when He walked up Golgotha's Hill and emptied Himself. 

David sings the Psalm, The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves. The LORD redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him. (Psalm 34) The  Apostle Paul, in his old age, writes to Timothy, I have kept the faith, I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race. (2 Tim. 4)

To be poured out like a libation; emptied for love. That is our call as well because it is the way of the Master. Paul wrote to the Philippians, Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being found in human likeness, humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a Cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him. (Philippians 2) The Greek word kenosis is translated emptying. The Way of the Gospel is the Way of being poured out for others.

St. Luke offers one parable which Jesus used to communicate this way. Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)

Which person are we in this story? I have a priest friend who reminds me that not ALL the Pharisees were so blinded by their self righteousness that they failed to recognize that the One whom they so often sought to correct was God Incarnate. And, he is correct. They were a genuine religious reform movement which sought to bring faithful Jews back to living the fullness of the Law of Moses in order to witness to the truth.

However, the ones which the evangelists who penned the four Gospels use to communicate a danger which can afflict all of us were certainly blinded by their own self righteousness. They are given to us as tutors, to point us away from succumbing to the danger which so often tempt believers, the temptation toward self righteousness.

The Pharisee stands as a warning to anyone of us who succumb to that temptation. It is a daily struggle. They prided themselves on their strict adherence to the Law - and believed they were being devout. Yet, they had become incapable of seeing the Source and Fulfillment of the Law, even as He lived in their midst. We can easily become those kind of men and women, if we fail to stay in a fresh and ongoing intimate communion with the Lord.

This seems to be a particularly dangerous temptation for those who consider themselves devout. It is an easy trap to fall into. A trap we need to always be on the lookout for in our own lives. And, fall is the operative word. The real crux of the problem is we may not know it is even happening before we find ourselves awakened to its corrosive effects through the bad fruit within and around us.

Decades ago I was an early responder in one of what have now been collectively called the ecclesial movements in the Catholic Church. I became a lay leader in a group which was enthusiastic in its sincere desire to live the fullness of the Catholic Christian Life and bring others into the same experience. Over time, some of us fell into the trap. By God's grace, I had my eyes opened in a way which now visibly informs my daily life.

I had been convicted by the Holy Spirit of my failings in leadership - and my own pride. I asked to take some time away from lay leadership to reflect on the entire experience. A dear friend,  unaware of my own inner journey, gave me a print of a famous painting by an artist named Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) which hangs in the London Museum of Art.  It is entitled Christ Before the High Priest .

I was quite young and knew nothing of the artist or the painting. However, it was beautifully framed and fit well in the room in the basement where I always took my morning prayer. During an intense period of prayer and reflection one particular morning, the scene in the painting burst off the page, as good art can do - and entered into my heart.

It depicts Jesus, standing before the High priest with His holy hands bound. The Priest, who at the time I thought was a Pharisee, is looking up with an arrogant demeanor and a pointed finger. Before him on the table appears to be the Torah, opened up as though he were truly reading it, and he was ready to correct.

Yet, standing right in front of him is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnate Word,  Jesus the Christ, the One greater than the Temple, the One who is the Lord of the Sabbath, the One who fulfills every promise in that Book.

I thought to myself, "How could a man get to this point? How could he fail to see the Light of the World before him?" I sensed the Lord prompting a response in my heart as I looked more deeply into the eyes of the High Priest (whom I thought was a Pharisee) and the eyes of Jesus as depicted in that painting. The response, "You have become that man".

The experience shook me to the core and literally changed my life. I also pledged to hang that print in every office I ever had for the rest of my life as a steady and sure guide, and loving warning, to watch over my own prayer and relationship with the Lord. To avoid becoming stale and relying on yesterday's bread. I have followed through on that pledge.

We are invited to begin, and begin again, and again - every day - with fresh new grace.  Perhaps that is one of the lessons we can learn from this parable. We are called to deal with our own inner Pharisee. When we do, the whole world begins to look different. And we become very different. We see Jesus with the eyes of living faith.

Then, we can begin to participate with Him in His redemptive mission by being members of His Body, the Church, as she spreads His light and love. We are called to be emptied out for others. That is the path to holiness.

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