“Masks”

IITim4/Luke 18

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

More money is spent on celebrating Halloween than on any other American holiday except Christmas.

For most revelers, the original religious significance of the day is lost. Christian countries used to remember the departed on the day after Halloween, All Saints Day, November 1, and All Souls Day, November 2. Families would visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of their loved ones. If you have wondered where the skeleton costumes came from, there’s your answer.

Today, the festival is mostly an excuse to party. But I would like to suggest another reason why we enjoy Halloween. And I will go on to claim that because of this motive for celebrating the holiday, in the end it isn’t entirely unreligious after all.

For on Halloween, you get to pretend to be someone else. You are allowed to be a superhero or a celebrity or an outlandish figure from myth or literature. You can appear to be far more daring or provocative than you really are.

The costumes of Halloween allow us for a moment to step out of ordinary life. We can look the way we fantasize about who we are. And that exercise reminds us of the disconnect between appearance and reality.

The Second Lesson we just heard is about this contrast between how we appear to others and who we really are in ourselves. Jesus tells a story about two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The two men go up to pray in the Temple. The Pharisee boasts: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

The Pharisee is hugely proud of himself for his piety. But the piety is a mask; deep down inside he’s really not so nice. He holds himself so high above other people that he contradicts his alleged faith. If the Pharisee were really so faithful, he would recognize that he, like every other human being, has faults.

Appearance and reality also clash in the case of the second man—but here, the clash goes in the opposite direction. The tax collector fears “even to look up to heaven. Instead, he beats his breast and prays, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

Yet because of the tax collector’s deep humility, the man in fact exhibits an admirable faith. As he humbles himself, he is exalted in the eyes of God.

A vivid story—so vivid it sounds like it must have actually happened—instead of being a parable of Jesus.

Unfortunately, in real life, the whole matter of pride and humility tends to be more complicated. Let’s suppose that the tax collector were a real person. Suppose further someone told him that Jesus praised his confession.

Now, wouldn’t the tax collector then be tempted to pat himself on the back? Might he say to himself, “Thank God I am not like this Pharisee, who considers himself so pure. Unlike him, I’m truly righteous– because I’m humble!”

There are other complications. At the time, tax collectors were likely to be corrupt. They weren’t paid by the government. Instead, they made their living by extorting as much money as they could from citizens.

So tax collectors—like highway robbers—were sinners by definition!

And we can also ask about the tax collector’s “self-esteem:” Shouldn’t he feel good about himself because he is so humble? Yet this humility seems to consist in his feeling bad about himself!

There seems to be a problem here. Self-image is rightly prized in our own culture, where we want everyone to feel valued as citizens and as human beings. If people have self-esteem, they will be able to work hard and contribute to the common good.

Still, I think that Christians are able to address all these issues. First, we believe that each of us has an ideal self that God wants us to realize. At the best, we can know who we really are. So, if we are hypocrites, we will know that. If we are self-centered, we’ll know that, too.

And humility should be rated separately from self-esteem. Self-esteem is the recognition that you are loved in the eyes of God; no one can bully you into thinking otherwise. Humility is the recognition that you aren’t perfect—a truth that applies to every one of us, saints included. It’s possible, then, to have a healthy self-esteem and still be spiritually humble in the sight of God.

So as we celebrate the Hallowed Eve of All Saints’ Day—after we decide on our costumes, after we decide how we’re going to appear in public, we might take a moment to reflect on our inner reality.

Honestly: how do we appear to ourselves? Are we more like the Pharisee or more like the tax collector? How do we appear to God? What are we really like?

Do we have an excessively high opinion of ourselves? Do we exaggerate our virtues and our talents? Do we look for ways to look down on people with lesser gifts?

A clue that we are holding ourselves above others can be that, in Christ’s words, we “exalt ourselves.”

What a damning phrase that is. We hate it when other people exalt themselves when they don’t deserve it. How awful we must look when we do the same thing.

Or, on the other hand, do we confuse humility with low self-esteem—so that we run ourselves down instead of accepting God’s forgiveness for our sins? Do we spend all our time judging ourselves instead of embracing the joy of the children of God?

The best strategy of all may be to follow the example of Christ, as St. Paul describes it in the First Lesson. We can try to “empty ourselves” as an offering for God and for others.

That’s the way to true humility. God wants us to put our self-knowledge to work so that we can empty ourselves of selfishness and give ourselves in love.

Then we might be able to make our own the marvelous words of St. Paul at the end of his life: “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Amen.


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