Jesus is gentle and humble of heart, but in His desire for our salvation, He also used forceful language to warn us away from sinful attitudes and behavior. Some of Our Lord’s harshest words are directed at hypocrisy. Many of the Pharisees and scholars of the law in Jesus’ day practically reduced religion to idolatry of the letter of the law, paying close attention to all the external observances without recognizing or living the spirit of the law, which is love of God and neighbor. Judging by Jesus’ words to the scholars, the experts in the law were very strict and thorough when they spoke about the demands of the law to others, but those same experts were lenient or even negligent in fulfilling those demands in their own lives.
This is a risk that faces us all. In our sincere desire to live every detail of our lives in accordance with God’s will, we can end up being critical of those who are less fervent or more negligent in their observance. At the same time, we might not fully acknowledge our own weaknesses. The first reading points out that we would often be condemned by the criteria we use to judge others.
If we are to be pleasing to God and truly happy, we have to try to iron out the inconsistencies in our lives. One approach to this is to say, “We can’t live up to our own standards, so let’s forget the appearances and lower our standards to mirror our actual behavior. The only standard to impose is that there are no universal standards.” This is presented under the flag of love and compassion, but it’s not a good solution. Due to human weakness, our behavior will rarely live up to our ideals. If we then keep lowering our standards to reflect our weakness, we go into a downward spiral. We only need look at our world today to see where this is leading. If we truly love others, we seek what is best for them, not what is easiest.
In reality, this is not an “either-or” situation where we either preach high ideals or are loving and compassionate. It is not hypocrisy to preach high ideals and condemn sin, as long as sincerely strive for those ideals out of love for God, recognize our own failings, and are forgiving and loving of others. We need to see each other as brothers and sisters, wounded by sin but chosen and called by God to live in holiness by the power of His grace. May the Holy Spirit fill us with His love so we will be drawn more and more irresistibly to God, seeking to do His will and helping others to do the same, relying always on the strength of the Lord, who is our “rock and our salvation, [our] stronghold”, and our “refuge.”