Every once in a while, we hear about one of our favorite people behaving badly.

Maybe it’s a co-worker who we find out has been seriously abusing her corporate expense account. Maybe it’s a friend who suddenly is spending all sorts of alone time with someone who is not his wife. Maybe it’s a family member who begins verbally abusing his or her spouse and children in public. Or maybe it’s simply our favorite movie star who has gotten in trouble with the law. And when that happens, when someone we like has fallen from grace, it can make us feel pretty disappointed, make us wonder and think to ourselves, “I thought he (or she) was one of the good guys.”

Of course, implicit in this sort of statement is the assumption that people can be divided into two distinct categories — good people and bad people. On top of that is also the assumption that each of us is clearly one or the other — moral or immoral, loving or cruel, generous or stingy, honest or dishonest, loyal or backstabbing, compassionate or judgmental, innocent or guilty.

Since there are only two options to choose from, most of us have absolutely no trouble doing what you’d expect — putting ourselves in the good category.

We often find a way to keep ourselves firmly planted in the good category by doing what I like to call moral gymnastics — somehow making our dishonest practices not as bad as those of others. Some consider their lies simply a “stretching of the truth” or regard our significant lack of generosity as simply “responsibly planning for the future.”

And so, we almost never consider ourselves to be the problem. We clearly aren’t what is wrong with this world. Not a chance. We aren’t what really needs to change. We’re one of the good guys. That’s obvious and we don’t ever let ourselves forget it. This puts us in a very select group, one which gets a lot of attention from Jesus throughout scripture. Unfortunately, it’s just about the only group that Jesus has a serious problem with.

Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, foreigners — Jesus easily accepts them, and is kind to them, compassionately reaches out to them and draws close to them.

But people who are convinced of their own goodness, righteousness and moral superiority? Well, it seems that Jesus has a SERIOUS problem with people who think that way.

They’re just about the only people in Scripture to whom Jesus really gives a piece of his mind. People who harbor thoughts like that disappoint him, and even make Jesus angry at times. And that should tell us something.

The word sin has become sort of a dirty word for many of us. Many feel that for a long time there was too much of a focus on sin and not enough emphasis on the joy that comes with living a God-centered life. While that may be true, admitting that we are sinners does not mean we have to beat ourselves up over it or consider ourselves worthless. We don’t need to fear God’s wrath every second of every day. It simply means that we are not perfect and that each of us contributes to the world being a little less than it can be through the choices we make.

Admitting that we are sinners means we accept and admit that we need to change. It means we have to admit we are called to give more and love more and forgive more and be more and, most importantly, that we sincerely desire to let God change us.

I guess it’s safe to say that there really aren’t simply good people and bad people. There simply are sinners and sinners. People who sometimes do the wrong thing and people who sometimes do the wrong thing. People who need God for everything. When we put it that way, we know where creating a better world begins. With me and you.

Deacon Stuart Neslin is a Parish Deacon and Parish Administrator at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rome.

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