Tuesday, October 19, 2010

God does not grade on a curve

The readings for this coming Sunday all point to one common truth:  the Lord is a just judge, an important thing to remember as we approach the month of November, with its days dedicated to all saints and all souls, and the Solemnity of Christ the King (which was originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, right before those first November feasts).

The first (cf. Sir. 35:12, 18) and second (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8) readings make this abundantly clear.  In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), the justness of the Lord's judgment is veiled in terms of a parable of two men who go to the temple to pray:
He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
To explain this theme, and this parable, to the students at Rider University who attend the Catholic Bible Study I host, I began by asking if they have ever taken a class or an exam where the teacher graded on a curve.

There are many ways to grade on a curve.  Perhaps the most infamous way is the "bell curve", which reflects what should be the statistically-sound normal distribution of grades among a body of students, as shown on the right.  Few students get As and Fs, more get Bs and Ds, and the most get the "average" grade, C.  This grading scheme can be good or bad for students.  It can be good because it means that the student who got the highest raw (uncurved) score on the exam is assured an A, no matter how objectively poorly he did.  It can be bad because it means that if everyone in the class aces the exam, they are all merely "average" and get Cs.

The bell curve, and other forms of curving, make up for the defect of the students' mastery of the material by comparing them to each other.  On a 100-question quiz, if no one gets more than 50 questions right, then that "failing" grade becomes an A.  Regardless of the highest-scoring student's knowledge of what he is being tested on, he receives a passing grade, because he scored better than the rest of his class.  Without the bell curve, the students are not compared to each other, but to the material covered on the exam; they receive objective grades based on their mastery of the material, not based on their relative performance.

In the parable which Jesus addressed to those who "were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else," our Lord mentions a Pharisee and a tax collector (or "publican" in some translations).  His audience, hearing the parable unfold, might have had the following impression: "A Pharisee!  Gosh, they sure are holy, with their phylacteries and their praying in the Temple and their knowledge of the Scriptures.  Ugh, and a tax collector?  My neighbor Zacchaeus is one of those traitors, taking my hard-earned money and giving it the Romans... and probably taking a little of the top for himself as well.  I'm sure Jesus wouldn't want to have anything to do with him."

The Pharisee compared himself to others, and believed himself to be better than them.  As they heard the Lord retell the Pharisee's prayer &mdash "to himself," which might just be idiomatic, but is also quite a condemnation! — they could have thought, "I might not be as good as the Pharisee, but I too am at least better than that tax collector!"  If they had to put the Pharisee and the tax collector on a scale and assign them letter grades, they would give the Pharisee an "A" and the tax collector an "F".  And then, if they had to assign themselves a grade, they would certainly place themselves above the dreaded tax collector.  Even if they got a "D", that was still a passing grade, right?

The tax collector's prayer was very different.  He did not compare himself to the Pharisee or to anyone else.  He compared himself to the divine law:  "O God, be merciful to me a sinner!"

Jesus tells us that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home justified.  The tax collector, comparing himself to the divine law and to God Himself, graded himself objectively; but the Pharisee, comparing himself to others, graded himself subjectively, on a curve; and God does not grade on a curve.  Our justification and salvation are not determined by comparing our performance with others'.  Our very need for justification and salvation are predicated on the great contrast between our conduct and God's law.  It does no good to compare ourselves to one another; St. Paul did not write that "some have sinned and fall short of the glory of their neighbor," but that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23)  God is the standard, most perfectly embodied in His Son Jesus Christ, in Whom the God was able to show us, by His own example, obedience to Him.

So as we approach the month which reminds us of the Last Things, let us not say, "God, I thank you that I am not like that adulterer, like that thief, like that murderer..." but instead, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

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