Many, today, in order to assess their moral state, consider their position in relation to the vast numbers of people that surround them. Perhaps they will consider that there are some who are surely holier than they are. Yes, surely internationally known figures (like Mother Theresa was), surely they rank up there way above us. Perhaps too in a more local way, many will see the holy ones who attend daily Mass or frequent Eucharistic Adoration or other devotions, and conclude that these sorts of people rank ahead of them in holiness and moral excellence.
But then comes the dark side of such relative moral ranking. For many of the same folks will also think of others as behind them and with relief say, “Well, I may not be perfect, but at least I am not like that drug dealer over there, or that prostitute, or that corrupt businessman or politician.”
And thus, most of us who use this point of reference will rank ourselves somewhere in the middle, and feel reasonably content. But this sort of contentedness is not the sort of assessment that helps us to be zealous to grow in holiness. And, more problematically, how I rank among others is not a valid standard, or meaningful assessment.
For indeed, we must find and fix our true point of reference on Jesus. He is the Way we must walk, he is the Truth to whom we must conform, He is the Life we must live. Jesus must be our moral reference, our moral compass.
Someone say, “Lord have mercy!” For now the standard shifts from a mediocre, middle of the pack, “at least I’m not as bad as so and so” reference point, to the very person of Jesus who also added: “You must be perfect, as the heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:43).
Thus, when Jesus is our standard and point of reference, we can rightly and with true humility and hope cry out “Lord, have mercy!” For with our sights fixed on Jesus, pride cannot long endure, and true humility begins to flourish.
For looking to Jesus, we know it is going to take boatloads of grace and mercy to ever close the gap between his holiness and our present unseemly state. Only grace and mercy will help us meet the standard that is Jesus himself.
To illustrate, go with me to the upper room, to the Last Supper. And as Mark’s gospel relates,
As they were reclining at the table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me—one who is eating with Me.” They began to be grieved and to say to Him one by one, “Surely it is not I?” (Mark 14:18-19)
“Surely it is not I?” And thus we see, none of us can be certain of our innocence in the presence of Jesus, in the presence of holiness Himself. Yes, in the presence of Innocence Himself, none of us are sure of our own innocence. Somehow, when Christ is our reference point, we see our truer state, and in a salutary grief and sober awareness of our capacity for sin, we simply and sincerely cry out: Kyrie, eleison! Lord, have mercy!
But now you see that we are thus equipped to trust Him, and to learn to depend on his mercy. He is not just the one who gets up over the top, or supplies what we lack. He is the one who has brought us back to life when we were dead in our sins! He is the one on whom we must wholly depend.
Too easily and smugly we rank ourselves among others, and too easily we falsely justify ourselves in this way. We grade ourselves on a kind of “moral curve” and thus become so easily prideful, self assured, and lacking in gratitude.
But when Jesus is our reference point, as He should be, we know our need to be saved. And perhaps we cry out the words of an old gospel hymn: “It’s me Oh Lord, Standin’ in the need of prayer!”
And looking to Him in this way, we may feel grieved, or overwhelmed, but in the end these are salutary, for they set the stage for, and usher in a kind of joyful humility and an immense gratitude, for what Jesus has done for us.
Knowing our unfathomable need for grace and mercy, how grateful we are to receive it! And being grateful, we are changed, we are different. Gratitude is a kind of joy. And when gratitude rushes into our chastened hearts, an awful lot of poison goes away. Anger, fear, resentment, ingratitude, greed, disappointment, desire for revenge, envy, jealously and so many other poisons, begin to vanish. And the joy of gratitude begins to usher in serenity, peace, love, generosity, forgiveness, mercy, contentment, and so many other gifts.
Yes, look to Jesus! Your neighbor is not the standard, not the point of reference, Jesus is. And while this look may bewilder at first, is is also a look that will save and bless us. Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!