Do not reproach one who is turning away from sin; remember that we all deserve punishment. — Sirach 8:5, NRSV
It just has to be forbidden to ignore a tiger face-palming when you see one, right?!
Hypocrisy is something that bothers everyone, including the tiger. When we hear someone issuing a challenging word of truth, and we are aware of their own disregard for that truth, we often throw away the entire teaching. After all, who are they to teach us when they fail just like we do?
I’ve thought this way before, and it was wrong for me to do so. It’s wrong for anyone to use your past to discredit a vital truth you try to bring to the world. After all, if only perfect teachers are allowed to teach, no one is going to learn anything. I decided after a very unpleasant experience yesterday to write on this topic. I hope you will forgive me, as I weave in and out of addressing readers as both those who are trying to speak the truth and those who try to stifle it. I think it is fitting, though, because at one time or another, every person has played each of those roles.
Even before my larger “fall” from pastoral work, people would find ways to discredit me based on my age, political views, or education. This only happened, however, when I was speaking a difficult truth. When I spoke of the necessity of forgiveness, generosity, or humility on a practical, daily level, I was met with resistance by people who did not want to do the necessary work to make those things a reality, even if all I did was simply draw attention to Jesus’ words on the subject!
People who are aware of my own transgressions have asked me, “What gives you the right to teach anyone now?” It’s a fair question, but it’s also a load of garbage. I’ve found that the best teachers I’ve ever had weren’t the “pure” ones who were unfamiliar with my struggles, knowing only enough to say I needed to do better. No, the teachers that had the most impact on me were those who walked the path I was walking, had the experience to know how disastrous the results would be for me, and loved me all the way to a different end.
This whole idea that only the “perfect” can instruct is rooted in fear. If you are speaking a truth that challenges others to look at their own mess, you can bet there will be resistance. It is important to keep in mind that this resistance is not your fault, but it is the result of their fear regarding their own transgressions. We would always rather point to the sinful faults of others rather than allow them to draw our attention to our own issues.
The Scripture for today’s post comes from Sirach, which I know isn’t recognized by everyone as true Scripture. Anyone who uses this to discredit what I am saying, though, simply proves my point. After all, Jesus warns us about looking to others before we deal with ourselves.
- “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” — Matthew 5:14-15, RSVCE
- “Judge not, that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” — Matthew 7:1-2; 5, RSVCE
- “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” — Luke 6:31, NRSV
When someone with a painful past tries to share some wisdom, perhaps in an effort to make some good out of having screwed up royally (like me), that is a good thing. It could very well be a sign that they either are turning or have turned from sin, and the writer of Sirach is right to correct those who would “reproach” such a person in chapter 8, verse 5. After all, “we all deserve punishment.”
Sure, maybe you haven’t faced a temptation or addiction that caused you to fall in any major way. Perhaps you haven’t killed, cheated on your spouse, stolen, been involved in gang violence, dealt drugs, or any of the other sins upon which we come down so hard. But did you know that pride is sinful? Also, self-righteousness is sinful. True, we don’t punish or address these as harshly as the others… But Scripture indicates that God will.
If you are like me, odds are your mistakes have been held against you when you tried to make a positive change. I know how that feels, which is why I wrote this post. You need to know that the fault is not yours. If you are trying to make your mistakes or painful past into something that helps others and people are using those very things to discredit you, that is their bloody problem. People that act that way are scared to see someone changing, because that means they can change. Lord knows, nobody wants to have to look within and face their own darkness. It’s easier to point out the darkness of others.
I hope this post is both encouraging and instructive. Face your demons and encourage others to do the same, as this is the only way we can heal as individuals, as communities, and as a family of faith. The response of others is something for which they will be held responsible. The only responsibilities we have are to change our ways, tell our story, speak the truth, and listen to others who are trying to do the same. I pray we all realize we are on this journey together, each of us in need of and redeemed by that Divine mercy revealed in Christ Jesus.
Peace be with you.