A couple of weeks ago, in the Gospel reading for Sunday, October 30, Jesus exhorts his followers with these words:
The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
The Fathers of the Church remind us in their commentaries on this passage that what these scribes and Pharisees are doing, in essence, is focusing more on being great than on being good. Their preoccupation with greatness, in fact, actively prevents them from truly being good according to the true spirit of the Law that they so actively seek to enforce upon others.
There is, for us, a very fine line between goodness and greatness…it is the thin line between righteousness and self-righteousness, the very line that separates Jesus and His followers from the scribes and Pharisees. Once we seek greatness more than goodness, crossing that line from righteousness into self-righteousness, we begin to spiral out of control. We lose sight of our true end, which is God Himself. This blindness is the result of what St. Thomas Aquinas describes as the "mother of all sin": PRIDE.
How many of us has ever been on the verge of committing a sin, when a little voice in our head helps us to justify it? That little voice convinces us that we are special, that "God understands," that it's really not that serious, or that it doesn't "count" because you'll just go to Confession afterward. This is the voice of Pride within us. It convinces us that we ought not be satisfied simply with goodness, but that we have achieved greatness and are therefore above the Law. We are better than the rules that Scripture and the Church establish.
It is Pride, and Pride alone, that convinces us that we are so special that we can cross the line from Goodness to Greatness without the risk of ever "losing sight" of our need to be good. But how often does that work? Never! Once we cross that line and put our desire for greatness over our desire simply to be good, we work our way down a slippery slope!
The line between good and great becomes increasingly blurred in our society, where we measure success according to material wealth and social status. We care nothing for the measure of man by how he relates to others, except to say that he is better if he has more or something. And yet, we never take into consideration virtue as something that one might have more of.
There is no cure for Pride. But there is a treatment: Humility. We often think of humility as a weakness, but it is not humility of the variety that requires us to put ourselves down. For, we all have an indelible and intrinsic dignity. And it is in the spirit of safe-guarding that dignity we acknowledge our shortcomings, that we fully accept that we are merely creatures of God. All that we have in this world--our wealth, our talents, our very being--come from God and God alone. To acknowledge this actively is to combat Pride, that says we are somehow greater than we have been created to be.
May God give us the humility to see the effects of pride in our lives, and to root it out through prayer, penance, and good works, that we might achieve true goodness in this life, and so enter into greatness in the life to come!