Those who are self-righteous, those who are so self-absorbed in their own ideas of righteousness that they end up being cold and uncharitable towards others, are in reality far from the righteousness which they claim to possess. It is true, they might have attained some level of virtue, at least in relation to the virtue which they pursued, but that is all they have. They have closed themselves off, in their own self-absorption, from the source of righteousness itself so that they are unable to experience true holiness. Thus, though they might act like they are holy, and put on shows of holiness in public, they are in reality the whitewashed tombs which Jesus decried:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matt. 23:27-28 RSV).
Those who become self-absorbed and glorify themselves due to what they think is their own righteousness receive the fruit of their work: themselves. What a limited reward that is. For as created, contingent, beings, their potentiality is limited. They are closed from the infinite grace needed to transform their lives so that they can participate in the vitality of eternal beatitude. As that grace comes to us from the Spirit of Life itself, those who deny it by their self-attachment end up not having a full spiritual life. They are the walking dead who strike out at those who possess such life. This attack is found in the way they judge others for not being like them. Many of them have all kinds of pretense that they use to judge others. While they claim their interest is only in promoting what God wants, in reality, they are unwilling to listen to God. For if they listened, they would know what God wants out of them: love, true love, not a false, judgmental spirit which denounces others so as to feel better about themselves. Such self-absorption, such false piety, imitates righteousness on the outside, making many seemingly appear as if they are among the spiritual living, but they are mostly dead shells inside as they know nothing of the spirit of God, and so remains far from true holiness. They might appear to be sinless, in accordance to what others see, but within, the rot of sin has already taken hold of their hearts, and they barely have any spiritual life left. They have nothing they regret, not because they have nothing to regret, but because they no longer have the care of heart which is needed for them to regret anything. Thus, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we read:
Abba Sarmatas said, ‘I prefer a sinful man who knows he has sinned and regrets it, to a man who has not sinned and considers himself to be righteous.’
Abba Sarmatas prefers people who, despite, their sins, regret what they do than those who hold to their own righteousness because those who regret what they have done still have a conscience within. They are still capable of listening to God and being converted. They are not yet spiritually dead. The so-called righteous, to be sure, still have that conscience within as well, but it is covered up and deadened by their self-absorption: they cannot hear anything but their own praises to themselves. Sinners who know their wrongdoing, who acknowledge their wrongdoing, who regret their wrongdoing, still have a heart from God. Despite what they do, often out of habit, they are struggling to keep themselves spiritually alive and so will demonstrate the humility which is needed for them to come to the kingdom of God. The self-righteous, on the other hand, have already turned their ears away from God and instead have begun to dictate to God what they think God must acknowledge of their own glory. In doing this, not only do they ignore the true glory of God, they become idolaters, worshiping themselves over God.
Jesus, therefore, was known to be among the sinners, among those who still had a conscience, while finding himself condemned by many of the so-called righteous of his own day:
And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:30-32 RSV).
This shows us how those absorbed by their own selves judge others, not with good judgments, but rather with debased ideologies which end up judging and condemning God himself. True righteousness, true holiness, seeks to bring people together in bonds of love, while its unrighteous imitation divides and condemns, following the path of destruction which is established by sin. Indeed, the more people become absorbed by their own self-love, the more they try to become gods unto the world, thinking they can know good and evil and divide the world according to their own ideologies. In doing so, all they do is divide and destroy, preventing the true good from flourishing. They repeat, this time as a farce, the fall of Adam.
We need to be careful. We need to be humble. We must reject the temptation of self-theosis, trying to take the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil unto ourselves and use it to create a world in our own fallen image. We need to open our hearts and minds to true holiness, to the holiness demonstrated to us by Jesus Christ, to the holiness of love. Such holiness makes us live and act, not for our own selfish desires, but for the good of others. True worship of God cannot be found apart from promoting justice and charity in the world. We must acknowledge we are, in and of ourselves, incapable of holiness; we need God, with his love and grace, to lift us up out of ourselves so that we no longer become attached to the wants and desires which divide us from others. Then, filled with his Spirit, we will not be like the walking dead, seeking to destroy what still has life, hoping to sustain ourselves on the spiritual life of others. Rather, we will seek to repair all the division caused by sin in the world. We will have true life, because we will have a heart which follows after the heart of God.
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 225 [Sarmatas 1].
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