“He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” John 8:7
A visit to some of the popular destinations in Europe is historically and scenically exciting, but it brings us in close physical proximity to the hard reality that Catholic religious practice is slowly dying out. Germany, Netherlands and Prague have some of the most beautiful church buildings that speak of an erstwhile rich Christian tradition that somehow got washed away with the sands of time. Many of them are commercial establishments, malls and even bars.
It is then easy to see why India is fast gaining in importance as a Christian destination in spite of the fact that we represent less than two percent of the Indian population. An active practice of religion is embedded in India’s cultural psyche and in Christian pockets like Kerala, it is heartening to see packed churches for daily Mass as well as huge numbers thronging retreat centres.
However, there is sometimes a flipside to this good custom that creeps in unknowingly to those who make a genuine effort to lead morally upright lives. Often we find these practising Catholics highly critical of those whose religious ideas differ from theirs. They condemn the ‘Sunday Catholics’ and speak derisively of the ‘outstanding’ (pun intended) Catholics. One such person was Mr Thomas, a well respected member of the Catholic Church. One could perhaps, call him a role model in terms of religious practice. His day started with the early morning Mass; he never missed out on his monthly confessions. Besides this, he would volunteer his services to organize retreats and other important church activities. His personal life was equally disciplined –a perfect human being. However, his family had a different opinion. He tended to measure all those around him by his own spiritual standards and they always failed to reach anywhere. His son enjoyed a drink on Saturday night with friends. This was something unthinkable for him. He was convinced that his son was under some evil possession and, as a result, their relationship soon became very strained. His wife had a wide circle of friends and a busy social life. From the spiritual pedestal he had created for himself, he was visibly contemptuous of her way of life. Viewing the world through the distorted lens of self righteousness, he found it hard to get over his fixations and reach out with love.
Self righteousness is not confined to religious practices alone. It pervades areas like life style, fashion, beliefs – anything that makes people different from each other. It is a pernicious form of judgementalism that forms a narrow opinion on surface symptoms. The resulting residue is a lethal mix of hatred and cynicism that has the power to block human empathy, love and understanding entirely. Its influence is not easily discernible in the early stages, as its prime victims are from among those who are genuinely on high moral ground, who have made a conscious effort to practise the Word of God as they understand it.
It is no wonder then, that the Bible warns us in so many different ways against this intolerable attitude. In the parables we find several characters that fit this description. The elder brother of the prodigal son finds only jealousy and hatred in his heart towards a younger brother who returned home after so many years. The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10) is equally significant as the Pharisee claims spiritual superiority compared with lesser mortals around him. Our Lord Jesus followed up these teachings with affirmative action that leaves us in no doubt of what true spirituality is. A sinful woman was brought to Him by a group of self righteous hypocrites who demanded that she be stoned to death. His answer was sharp and clear. The one without sin should throw the first stone. Throughout His public life He was seen with different kinds of people— sharing a meal with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, equally at home with the sinners and the apostles, sharing an unconditional love and concern with all those around Him and leading by example.
The self righteous are on a perilous path because they have forgotten the language of love. In their quest for morality they have missed the wood for the trees. For Jesus love and relationships were always unconditional and if we, as His followers, are able to imbibe that, our battle is won.