Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with
sinners and tax collectors and said to His disciples,
“Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said to them,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I do not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
To be called by Jesus is to know oneself as a sinner. The standard He sets is high: “Be perfect as Our Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:45). In the light of this high expectation every person who will enter Christ’s kingdom of the new heart knows himself to be a sinner.” Saint Paul writes, “ For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And Saint John the Evangelist: “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; If we confess our sins He is faithful and true to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8–9).
The first proposition of Christian theology is the assertion that nature and man, being the creatures of a good God, are themselves good. “Behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The second is the assertion that man and nature are fallen from that state of original righteousness in which they were created. So the first work of the apostolic mission and therefore of the Church is to convince the world and every person in it that we are sinners, coming into this world separated from God by our rebellion and neglect of our duties to the Divine Majesty. The word righteous in the superscript describes a person who believes that without God he is good, or as good as he should be, when in fact he is a sinner, and the worse for not recognizing the fact, The first word in the Gospel story, spoken by John the Baptist, is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The burden of the first chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is found in two revelations. The Gospel is the power of God to reveal the righteousness of God, with this followed immediately by the revelation that the wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness and the wickedness of men.
The foundation of the Kingdom is the realization of the righteousness and glory of God and of our sinfulness. If we do not see ourselves as sinners we cannot hear the invitation of Jesus to enter His kingdom. Our sinfulness is twofold. First, there is the burden of original sin which teaches us that by our very condition as recent representatives of a rebellious race we too are with our first parents afflicted with the results of disobedience: rebellion ending in disease, disorder, and death. Chesterton once observed that of all the Christian doctrines, the doctrine of original sin is most obviously true, for which see the front page of any newspaper, with its predictable tale of political incompetence, cupidity, greed, and the ravages of lust upon respectability.
This great doctrine of original sin has been in retreat in our culture since, taking the eyes of our hearts off the righteousness of God, we took up various forms, hard and soft, of the secular utopianism that characterizes the modern world. We hear daily that the imperfections of the human condition, poverty and disease and ignorance are due not to the malevolence of weak and fallen wills but to the material environment. Criminals are exonerated from responsibility by the fact of their imperfect childhoods and faulty education. Given such presuppositions, the healing of the heart lies not in repentance but with the counselor or psychiatrist, and while such engagements may be beneficial, until human souls can see ourselves for what we are in the light of the Divine goodness and majesty, the rebellious will cannot be healed. Thousands are exonerated from a duty to obey the laws of the United States by the poor conditions, poverty and unemployment, rampant in their biographies. Education has failed because it lacks the resources, a claim made in the face of the fact that the United States spends more per student on education than any other country in the world. And through it all, increasingly, there is no cause for repentance because persons are not thought to be active in the formation of their own characters.
This is a moral world that fosters grievance—someone must be responsible for the evil I see and experience—and moral incompetence. The Christian doctrine that formed the soul of the pre-Enlightenment world does not require anyone to claim responsibility for original sin; it does require admitting that we are justly afflicted by and with it. And this means looking at the world with a forgiving eye; for those around us share the weakness and ignorance and rebelliousness that is rooted in our common fallen nature.
The other kind of sin belongs to us alone; the actual sins we commit, encouraged by the weakness inherent in original sin but consummated by our consent. Satan encourages but he cannot cause wickedness in us. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted, for God cannot be tempted with evil and He himself tempts no one’”(James 1:31). Our sins are caused by our cooperation, sometimes by a casual neglect of our duty to God, sometimes by enthusiastic participation in evil. And the acknowledgement of this fact is the sticking point for modernity. Utopians may tell us that many things are wrong with the world. While capitalist greed and cultural selfishness may, sometimes justly, be abundantly denounced, repentance is personal, depending upon the awakening of conscience by the Church’s call to repentance.
This failure is in significant part the result of the abandonment by the Church of its mission to the world in the attempt not to be seen as judgmental or unkind. The Church offers comfort to those who, touched by the Holy Spirit, remaining faithful to Christ, confess their sins and their sinfulness, but, seemingly, it has largely abandoned its prior duty: the call to repentance of everyman in the face of the glory, magnificence, and righteousness of God. Those who neglect God because they see themselves as, well, perhaps not righteous but surely good enough, are not only making a theoretical mistake, they are risking what Jesus called the eternal fire and the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50). They will not be called into His Kingdom by Christ because they believe the lie that they are not sinners. Along the way they will make life hell on earth because, believing in their own goodness, they will assume that those who differ from them are not, like themselves, weak and sometimes silly sinners, but will assumes that such contrary opinions are the result of an evil will, a will that can never be accommodated but must be defeated.
Lay persons are not commissioned to call the world to repentance, but can play a part by resolutely refusing to cooperate with evil or to make terms with the world. A Christian who will not bend to the ways of the world is an ever-effectual witness. And we can enjoy the peace of not believing a lie, for the lie that we are good enough is at the heart of the discomfort and irascibility that is part of the curse of secular modernity.