Today is Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent and the beginning of a season in which followers of Jesus are encouraged to prepare their hearts for Easter “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (to quote the Book of Common Prayer). However, I find myself more aware than usual this year of how challenging it is to embrace the penitent spirit that’s meant to characterize the next 40 days. After all, we live in a culture in which our attention is eagerly directed to the latest examples of outrageous behavior: the abuse of women and children, self-serving actions of some elected officials, cowardly attacks upon officers of the law, hateful prejudices, and so much more. And while these behaviors are rightly condemned, I fear that our constant exposure to them can make it a little too easy for us to convince ourselves of our own moral superiority. It becomes a little too easy to say: “Well, at least I’m not like those people…”
In today’s gospel lesson (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells a well-known story that’s directed “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (verse 9). Two men go to the Temple to pray: one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” But the tax collector stands at a distance, beats his chest and won’t even look up to heaven as he prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus says that the second attitude is the one that brings justification: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 14).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” May we recognize that line within ourselves on this Ash Wednesday. And may we observe a holy Lent, in which true humility and repentance draw us closer to the Savior who suffered so that we could be forgiven.