My buddies and I in junior high thought we were real cut-ups – very clever – and we were always on the lookout for new comic material. The Bible was no exception.
I grew up Presbyterian, and the Bible in the pew racks back then was the RSV – the exquisite Revised Standard Version put out by the National Council of Churches. What with Bible studies and memory verses, youth group and summer camps, we got to know the RSV pretty well, and it was naturally incorporated into our laugh lines and repartee.
For example, consider Philippians 2.3: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” We took Paul’s sober admonition, shaved off a bit, and bandied it about as an apostolic justification for serious sloth: Do nothing (Phil. 2.3a). Another is the very last line of Jonah which one of my friends claimed as his ‘life verse': And also much cattle? (Jonah 4.11c).
My personal favorite was Psalm 50.9a: “I will accept no bull from your house.” God is portrayed in the Psalm as expressing his preference for holiness and personal sacrifice among His people, as opposed to animal sacrifice for the sake of animal sacrifice. As if to drive home the point, the psalmist concludes this way:
He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me; to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God!
But for me and my pals? “No bull” had other connotations, and you can bet we tossed that chapter and verse at each other on a regular basis (guffaw, guffaw).
I was reminded of all this when Psalm 50 came up in the Lenten Mass readings recently, and I got to thinking that my youthful and irreverent appropriation of verse 9 contained an unforeseen lesson in contrition and humility that will come in handy as I prepare for a pre-Easter Confession in the days ahead.
The lesson – more of a reminder – is this: God is not stupid. When we approach Him with our sins, we might as well come clean – why hold anything back? He’s God after all, and He’s going to know when I’m palming a secret sin despite my “firm purpose of amendment” in the confessional. And I might think I’m pulling one over on Father behind the screen – with my smooth pious patter, and my seemingly rigorous ticking off of faults in kind and number – but God’s not fooled.
The Catechism reminds us of this divine “accept no bull” principle in very direct terms when describing the sacrament of Penance:
Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.
And the Catechism, quoting the Council of Trent, goes on to specifically reject our attempts to deceive God, saying that those who attempt to conceal sin in Confession end up placing “nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, ‘for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know'” (CCC 1456).
Mind you, I’m not just talking about obvious sins like the sexual ones – those are the no-brainers. As Dorothy L. Sayers so astutely observed in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” immorality comprises much more than just fornication, adultery, and lust. She comments:
A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.
When I approach the Tribunal of Mercy, it’s the habits of greed and petty jealousy and (especially) gluttony – Sayers’ “other six deadly sins” in other words – that I tend to rationalize and downplay. The fact that Tradition has declared all seven categories of sin to be deadly ought to be plenty of incentive for rooting out all our failings with the same diligence that we apply to rooting out the sexual ones.
Today’s readings at Mass were all about shedding light on that which is hidden. There’s St. Paul to the Ephesians (“everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light”), and the Gospel from St. John about a miraculous healing (“I was blind and now I see”). However, the first reading – about Jesse quibbling with the prophet Samuel about which son to anoint – was the perfect corollary to an earthy “no bull” reading of Psalm 50. Here’s what the Lord communicates to Jesse through the prophet:
Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.
Enough said. God grant me the courage and strength to put away the bull and come clean, and to receive that ultimate cleansing He so much desires for me.