Many years ago as I greeted people following a Sunday morning service, one parishioner said to me, “You really gave it to them, preacher.” He didn’t say, “Your sermon was meaningful to me.” For him, what I said seemed to apply only to the others in the congregation, giving him a little lift in self-righteousness. I don’t remember what the sermon was about, but I haven’t forgotten that sometimes what we hear is used as evidence against others rather than applying the message to ourselves. I trust my intention was not to be in anyone’s face, but that is a reaction I got.
When we see something wrong in the world or in another person, it is easy to pull the self-righteousness stop by condemning the offender and patting ourselves on the back. Jesus was familiar with this attitude and warned his hearers about exalting themselves at the expense of others. In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray, the Pharisee extolled himself as one who was not a thief, rogue, adulterer, or even like the tax collector. “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus went on to say that “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14)
Like the Pharisee, enthusiastic evangelists sometimes fall into this accusatory trap. Instead of proclaiming “good news” with humility, there can be an “in your face” approach to the proclamation that turns off the audience and only makes the preacher feel good that he really “gave it to them.” My experience many years ago is a warning to keep myself in the company of sinners. In being compassionate to myself I am more likely to be compassionate to others.