Chief of Sinners

For those not paying very much attention, we are in the midst of Lent. Among other things, Lent is the season in which we observe a humility that remembers our shortfall, the great distance between what we are on our own and what Christ has called us toward, made us for, and redeemed us into. I've quoted Richard John Neuhaus before, a line that I remember particularly during Lent every year: "About chief of sinners I don't know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me." This comes from his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, which I probably mention every year about the same time I'm reminded of this line.

I was reminded of it again yesterday while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. He addresses the same question, Who among us is the chief of sinners? with the same answer. It brought me back to Neuhaus today, and I think rather than talking about it more, I'll just give you a small passage:

"I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all."

It is a matter of honesty, and any humility that is not rooted in honesty isn't humility at all. It is also a matter of love, and that is what brings us back to Bonhoeffer. In Life Together, the question of our guilt is raised as a reminder that we come to our neighbors as broken people, children in need of a Savior. Any suggestion that we are less in need than our neighbors is a lie we must disabuse ourselves of if we ever mean to love them with the love of Christ.

"Finally," Bonhoeffer writes, "one extreme thing must be said. To forego self-conceit and to associate with the lowly means, in all soberness and without mincing the matter, to consider oneself the greatest of sinners. . . . There can be no genuine acknowledgment of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sin appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. My sin is of necessity the worst, the most grievous, the most reprehensible. Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility*."

In a secular sense, good etiquette requires approaching all people with equal respect, consideration, and sincerity. If you wish to approach any layer of society with an open heart and mind, you need those three things. But I suspect it's not wholly possible, even for the most polite disciple of Emily Post, without the humility of Christ, who bore the consequences of the worst of sinners with a holy willingness, though he himself knew no sin. Better to be his disciple, because in doing so we find not only the most lowly humility but also the adoption into his family. Welcome, then, to the Church, home of the chief of sinners.

*emphasis mine

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