“If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?” We have just repeated this verse several times, but it really does need to be hammered into our heads. We are not good enough; no one is. The world is not divided between the virtuous and the wicked, between the good and the bad. We are all bad. We might not have killed anyone, or committed a crime that would send us to prison. We might be what the world calls “a basically good person”. This does not matter. We know the reality behind the façade we show the world. We not only make mistakes, doing or saying something before thinking about it, but we consciously make bad decisions. We are not perfect and anything less than perfect is not good enough.
The first reading demonstrates the problems we face. The wicked man can easily convert, and his whole life is forgotten in favor of his new attitude. Likewise, the virtuous man can easily fall and do something wicked and his whole life is forgotten because of his sin. These are not two different men but one man. We should each recognize ourselves in these portraits, how easily we go from wickedness to virtue and back. A person can, in the course of an hour, sin and convert and sin again.
Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. These were people who tried as hard as they could to be good, to follow every law. We are not going to beat the Pharisees at their own game. We need something different. We have something different in humble repentance. In the first reading, the wicked man who repents is saved but the virtuous man who falls is condemned. If we see ourselves as “basically good”, we are going to fall. Pride comes before the fall.
If we acknowledge our wickedness, if we admit that we do not love God as we should and we do not love our neighbors nearly as much as ourselves, we are on the path to repentance. Humility comes before the conversion. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are rooted in Christian spirituality. The first step, “We admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable”, is not some special status of alcoholics. This is the attitude that we all must have in the face of sin.