Jesus harshest words were reserved for the religious establishment of his day – the Pharisees. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them but he detested their self righteous bile.
On one occasion for example, they brought to him a woman ‘caught in the act‘ of adultery (John 8:1-11). They then presented him with a crass choice – should she be stoned (as the law of the day required) or be released? They sought to manipulate this scenario as a means of humiliating Jesus. Whatever his answer, they would have used it either to accuse him of disrespecting the law or lacking compassion for the woman. Jesus was all too aware of what they were up to and so responded with the wisdom of silence, letting the accusers out-talk themselves before eventually replying with his now famous words ‘Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone‘. Within minutes, the Pharisees were gone.
Some scholars suggest that the reason for the quick departure was that the other party to this ‘act’ of adultery was another Pharisee. It would make sense since they were ‘caught in the act’. Yet it is curious that only the woman was brought to Jesus. Why only the woman? Why not the man too? Surely that would have been more just?
This story teaches us a powerful lesson. Self-righteousness is simply unrighteousness in disguise. It is the very worst form of hypocrisy – willing to stone one sinner whilst conveniently overlooking another. It is more interested in competing than showing compassion. It claims to love justice whilst living the very opposite. It’s only real interest is itself – pride, persona, point scoring.
We could widen this challenge to the world in which we live today. There is a huge amount of self-righteous grandstanding around – in media, politics and yes, in the Church too. It’s curious how selective and inconsistent cries of injustice can be. While it is right and proper to express disapproval at injustice, moral indignation will only be truly authentic if it carries moral authority. The latter can only happen through a consistent example which actually lives what it preaches. This was the problem with the Pharisee’s in John 8 – their moral outrage was partial and biased. This lacked integrity and was deeply unjust.
If you really want to make a difference in the world, talk a little less and let your example be your statement. The old adage that ‘actions speak louder than words’ is true. But being consistent causes them to be all the louder. Remember, the people who quietly and consistently get on with it are the one’s who change the world. Now that’s radical.