We can't save ourselves. That's the prime conclusion of Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
In the parable, the Pharisee goes before God and, with stunning arrogance, recites his good deeds and proclaims how much better he is than the rest of the riff-raff. But Jesus says salvation comes not to him but to the tax collector who comes to God with empty hands, beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"
Now, we've heard this parable so often we may miss some of what is going on here. We may tend to hear it as a condemnation of the Pharisee's self-righteousness and judgmentalism towards others. It is that. But we don't need to be as blatantly arrogant as the Pharisee to repeat his sin.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft sometimes points out that most of his Catholic students in first year university still don't know how to get to heaven. They believe basically that if you don't hurt too many people, try your best to live a good life and try to make the world a better place, you'll earn your eternal reward.
But really that sort of thinking is little different from that of the Pharisee. Kreeft's students may not judge anyone harshly as the Pharisee does, but they still believe good works are the path to salvation.
Jesus, however, says it was the tax collector who "went down to his home justified." The tax collector who had done nothing good and who had likely bilked many of his neighbours out of their savings. This tax collector was justified because he admitted he had sinned and that salvation was utterly impossible for him without the mercy of God.
This is true for everyone of us. No matter what great accomplishments we have had or what marvellous deeds we have done, we cannot be saved unless we throw ourselves at the mercy of God.
The traditional hymn Amazing Grace is now being laundered in some quarters so that God is no longer praised for saving "a wretch like me." The term "wretch" contradicts the Gospel of self-esteem. But the truth is we are all wretched before God. We have all -- or at least I have -- done disgusting things for which we deserve to be cast forever out of God's sight. Wretchedness is our name, sin our way of life.
If our good works are the pathway to heaven, the place would be bereft of human habitation. However, there are people in heaven. They got there not only by being cleansed from their sins but by being given a share in divine life. They have become like God.
Sharing in divine life is the most remarkable thing we will ever hear of. We can become God's children just like Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus was God's Son by nature, but we become God's children by adoption. This is the power of the Holy Spirit who is given to us, who dwells within us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Athanasius (and others) to this effect: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God" (no. 460).
The only way we can enter heaven is not by doing good deeds and obeying all the rules, but by becoming like God. Of course, once we have been transformed into children of God, we will do marvellous deeds in Christ. But those deeds don't earn us a place in heaven; they display the heavenly life that is already in us.
How do we come to share in divine life? Through Baptism. We strengthen and nourish that new life through the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist, through prayer, through self-denial and through good works done in Christ. When that new life breaks down and is destroyed, we can be brought back to life through "the labourious Baptism" -- the sacrament of Confession.
How do we know God is alive within us? We don't know, for sure. To say otherwise is to commit the sin of presumption. There is no sure guide to know how we stand with God. Even St. Joan of Arc, when asked by her inquisitors whether she was in a state of grace, responded, "If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there" (no. 2005).
We can't save ourselves. But through faith and the grace of God, we can be brought into communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is an incredible thing. St. Augustine said, "The justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth" (no. 1994). Beside this, all our great human accomplishments are but dust. The nurturing of this relationship with God is the greatest possible end to which we can devote our lives. It is also the only pursuit which will last for eternity.
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