“Vipers.” “Sons of your father the Devil.” “Hypocrites.” “Whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones.” Jesus uses some very harsh language when he speaks to the religious leaders of his day. In many ways His use of such strong language seems to contradict His own instruction to His disciples: “Be gentle as doves.” “Condemn not.” “Bless those who persecute you.” And “First remove the plank from your own eye.” Even in Jesus’ life we can discern two modes of behavior toward the religious leaders. During the teaching stage of His ministry, Jesus speaks harshly both to and of the religious leaders, but as he moves toward his suffering and death, Jesus “answers nothing.” Or as St. Peter says, “When He was reviled, he reviled not again.”
Some have suggested that Christians are called to follow Jesus’ example (during the teaching stage of his ministry) in the use of harsh language, even condemnation, of hypocritical, corrupt and unjust people and institutions. While there may indeed be circumstances in which it is appropriate, even necessary, for a Christian to harshly condemn others, I suggest that to do so is very dangerous. Consider for a moment the following.
Jesus was not a hypocrite.
Jesus could say to the crowd who was about to stone the adulterous woman, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Why could He say such a thing and get away with it? Because He was without sin. Jesus could call men hypocrites because He was not a hypocrite. Before a Christian calls anyone a viper, he had better be certain that there are no serpentine deceptions hiding in his or her own heart.
Jesus knew the hearts of men.
Jesus knows what human beings are made of, what a mess of impulses and contradictory thoughts and urges fallen human beings are. Jesus knew, for example, that Caiaphas (the high priest) was a hypocrite while Nicodemus (a leader of the Jews) and Joseph of Arimathea (a wealthy man) and Zacchaeus (a wealthy tax collector) were not. People are seldom as easy to read as we think. There are men and women who have so purified their senses that they are granted a glimpse into the hearts of others. We call such people saints. Unfortunately, most Christians have not done a very good job of purifying their own hearts. Consequently, it is very dangerous for them to judge the hearts of others based merely on what their senses perceive. We must remove the beam from our own eye (heart, soul, mind) before we can help our neighbour with the speck in his or hers.
“Does that mean,” someone recently asked me, “that I’m supposed to say nothing?” My answer is a reluctant and qualified, no. It is reluctant because it is good to be quiet for a long time. Silence helps us see more clearly: see ourselves first and thus others more clearly. Someone once pointed out to me that (in John’s Gospel) Jesus took the time to “braid a whip of cords” before he drove the money changers from the Temple. I think most Christians need to spend quite a bit of time braiding together our dispersed thoughts and feelings into a unified whole (i.e. cleanse the inner Temple) before we start trying to cleanse any outer temples.
This time of silence also plays another important role: silence teaches us our own poverty. When we act in the strength of our own arm (to use an Old Testament metaphor), when we do what is within our own power to do, we are sometimes deluded (or at least distracted) into thinking that our own sword is delivering us (with all due referential glory to God for “helping me”). If we are not careful, Christians become mere Crusaders (Jihadist, if you like), violently (by word or deed) imposing on others a righteousness that we ourselves cannot follow. Silent suffering makes us face our poverty of Spirit, and this is the first rung on the ladder of the Kingdom of God.
Yes, there are times when a Christian must speak and act--even forcefully. Christians are called to use whatever worldly influence they have for the sake of righteousness; however, we must be very careful. It is a very Christian irony that only when we are certain that we are not qualified to speak as Jesus did, that we begin to become people who might be able to speak as Jesus did. It is only when we are sure that whatever words or influence or resources we have will make very little difference in influencing others toward righteousness that, perhaps, we discover (usually in hindsight) that we have been allowed to participate with God in the salvation of others.
During this week of Christ’s Passion, He let Himself be spit upon, slapped, slandered, and unjustly condemned, and said almost nothing. Perhaps by paying attention to this example, we will become people who may also become able to follow His other examples.