’Priesthood is too precious to carry in a cheap car’ – I heard this from one priest many, many years ago. It seems that a similar belief drove a certain bishop in Germany to commission the building of his new residence at the humble price of £26 million. He felt that surely being elevated to a bishopric entitled him as a bishop to wash his precious body in a bathtub no cheaper than £12,000. Surprisingly, only a handful of people shared his view and, astonishingly, Pope Francis wasn’t among those. The poor bishop of Limburg had already spent all the money on so-called essential stuff, and he had to fly to Rome with Ryanair. What disrespect to his precious status as a bishop…
Once, when I was going to buy a dirt-cheap Fiat car, a friend of mine warned me that it wasn’t ‘a prestigious brand’ – as if I didn’t already know that. Actually I was buying the car because it was cheap to buy, cheap to run, reliable, and was to help me to do my priestly job effectively. I didn’t want to boost my self-esteem; I didn’t need to. Frankly I’ve never understood people boosting their own self-importance by buying more, better or dearer things than others.
In today’s gospel Jesus presents two people visiting the temple. The first one, a Pharisee, is boasting about his own achievements, his own perfection and diligence, scornfully comparing himself with the second character of the parable, a tax collector. I suppose the Pharisee feels good about himself as long as he doesn’t come across someone a bit better-off than him; then probably envy takes him over. The tax collector doesn’t look an attractive alternative; seemingly he’s got very low self-esteem with his head down, and displaying his apparent guilt. Well, he’s examining his life in line with God’s rules, and he probably finds it still far from perfect. But because he doesn’t compare his life with that of others, he’s got a fair chance of assessing himself correctly, and to find his self-esteem intact when he comes across his richer or poorer neighbours.
It seems that many people feel insecure about their own worth, and, indeed, worthiness. Here are two of the most common ways of confirming that for themselves. The first one is through competition with others to outdo them with better clothes, better cars, better houses, spouses, lovers, or anything else providing better status – in their imagination. The problems with this approach are multiple; among them is a real danger that someone better-off can spoil the party. The second way of building up our own worthiness is much cheaper to achieve, and it’s long-lasting. It begins with recognition of our own abilities and limitations, our own virtues and vices. Another step is developing our talents and skills, accepting our limitations, and making the effort to get rid of imperfections. This kind of genuine and real perception of our own selves makes us immune both to praise and to insults. People with such an attitude neither envy those better-off, nor scorn those worse-off – they don’t need to do so in order to feel good.
Many people have accused Christianity of making people feel guilt. For the last few decades, the main trend in bringing up children has been to praise them for whatever they do. It’s just a recent discovery that this perpetually applauding approach actually disadvantages the children because, if everything they do is awesome, why should they bother to do anything better? So, when in the Church we are talking about the need to examine our conscience, to check our intentions and behaviours against the commandments, none of this is in order to make us miserable and frustrated. It’s in order to make us stronger and self-appreciative, because only the truth about our lives can set us free. Free of greed, envy and pride.