During the times of Jesus, the Pharisees had become people who were not trusted. The origin of the word “Pharisees” meant “separated ones” to recognize that they were of the tribe of Levi, the people who were not given a portion of the promised land in Canaan and had the responsibility to tend to the spiritual needs of all of Israel.
However, over time they became, as modern dictionaries note, “separated by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity.” While the purpose of their separation was to tend to the spiritual needs of the people, over time, their spiritual practices became about them and not the people. They became sanctimonious hypocrites, the laughingstock of Israel.
Interestingly, a “self-righteous” person is a hypocrite. In other words, a person’s acts must be recognized or shared as “righteousness” by the community; if not, then the “unrighteous” person is making a false claim.
We have many crack-pots who commit acts of violence in the name of self-righteousness while society sees their actions as unacceptable or even a crime. We have people who, in their self-righteousness, blow up medical clinics to kill doctors and nurses in violation of the law. Timothy McVeigh, the one who blew up the Oklahoma City Hall, killing countless children, claimed self-righteousness because he did not want to pay taxes. We had the idiots who claimed self-righteousness on January 6th and committed treason because they did not like the election results. There are those in their self-righteousness who reject the LGBTQIA+ community and deny women reproductive rights. All are those who claimed “self-righteousness,” but larger societies see them as deranged crazies.
When a religious institution is out of step with the larger society, it is no longer seen as “righteous” but is seen as “self-righteous” and no longer has the authority to speak to the larger society about good and evil or right and wrong. Then that religious sect is seen as being made up of crackpots and crazies. When Jim Jones and his followers all committed suicide in the name of Jesus in Guinea, the rest of the world saw them as a cult of pitiful people misled by a delusional cult leader who claimed to be God. His followers were fools for following a “self-righteous” idiot.
Many church people mistakenly believe that their brand of self-righteous, sanctimonious religiosity shows that they are right with God. In their delusions, they say those who disagree with them are following “false gods.” In their “self-righteousness,” which the larger society already has rejected, they claim their repulsive behaviors are in the name of Jesus.
We teach children to “make your light shine,” but we do not teach children that not all “lights” are good. In our modern world, we now talk about “light pollution” that prevents us from seeing and appreciating the stars. We have children who have grown up in urban areas who have never seen a star in the sky because God’s beauty is hidden by human creation. Claiming human power and ingenuity, we have outshined God’s lights. We have many churches whose “light pollution” of their “self-righteousness” prevents the world from seeing the beauty of God’s light in Jesus. It sounds like we are trying to reenact the Tower of Babel.
Let us be righteous people of God, not the self-righteous people of the church. Let us shine the light of Jesus, not the light pollution of our self-righteousness. Let us shine the light of the One who accepts and loves all people.