Thinking Anew – Pride and self-destruction

“One of the paintings is based on part of St Luke chapter 18, tomorrow’s Gospel reading, which tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray in the Temple.”

“One of the paintings is based on part of St Luke chapter 18, tomorrow’s Gospel reading, which tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray in the Temple.”

 

Vie de Jésus Mafa (The Life of Jesus Mafa) was a missionary project led by French Roman Catholic missionary François Vidil working with Christian communities in northern Cameroon in the 1970s. As part of the programme it was decided to create a catalogue of paintings depicting Jesus as an African man to help Mafa people teach the Bible in ways that connected with their culture. The same idea is found in our Celtic crosses with their chiselled biblical scenes.

The paintings were based on the work of a team of local church leaders and others who spent time in Mafa communities, reading Bible passages and getting people to re-enact them. Vidil and his team photographed these re-enactments and the photographs became the basis of 70 paintings covering almost every story in the four Gospels.

One of the paintings is based on part of St Luke chapter 18, tomorrow’s Gospel reading, which tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray in the Temple. The painting shows the Pharisee, immaculately dressed in a white embroidered gown, his back turned to the other man. A sweeping right-handed gesture denotes poise and status as he speaks: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” In the painting “this tax collector” is shown in the background in nondescript clothes and clearly in distress: “. . . standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The core teaching of this story is that the Pharisee sees himself as the measure of everything and everyone else; he sets the standard. He is not just his own man; he is his own god.

Archbishop William Temple warns against the destructive nature of pride which is such a feature of this story. “The self-centered or self-concerned soul, making itself the object of its contemplation, and seeing all else as related to itself, is trying to feed upon itself. The food may be congenial, but the process is inevitably one of wastage. Such a soul must shrink and shrivel, suffering at last both the pain of unsatisfied hunger and the pain of contraction.” For any one of us to pretend that we are “it”, humanity at its finest, is sad beyond words because deep down we know it is simply not true. It is an unnecessary burden we create for ourselves.

The word confession captures the difference between Pharisee and tax collector. One man is talking about himself to himself; the other is talking to God about himself and seeking mercy.

Desmond Carroll served as a priest in the Church of Ireland before moving to Canada where he held several posts including that of Dean of the Yukon until his untimely death in 2002.

In Northern Reflections, a selection of his writings published posthumously, he reflects on the saying that confession is good for the soul: “These words are somewhat time worn but in essence they are true. We know in a general way how there are times in life when we need to talk to someone about some dis-ease that surrounds us. And although the exact solution may not be found, the process of talking to a good listener brings about its own ease and discovery. It is not enough to say the words; they need to be heard by someone else for the reaction to take place, and in those darkest moments to feel accepted in the face of the dreadful secrets of our lives. Confession before God shares some of the characteristics of that dialogue with our neighbours and companions. Even in the face of the ‘all knowingness’ of God the time of outpouring and letting go has a healing quality . . . We are beckoned to lay out the burdens and dis-eases of our lives before God and each other. It helps to bridge the gaps and heal the wounds as we encounter the issues of our lives.”

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