This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Matthew 23:1-12.

Hypocrisy.  I don’t know how many times I have heard people give as their reason for not attending church or even being a Christian, the hypocrisy of Christians.  “I don’t go to church because they’re all a bunch of hypocrites.” 
Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy either.  Hypocrisy is exactly what Jesus complains about in his rigorous criticism of the scribes and Pharisees.  That is, their actions do not match their words.  They are pretending to be something they are not.  They are not sincere or authentic in their faith.  They say one thing and do another.
So the criticisms of people about the church today, and the criticism Jesus leveled against the religious establishment of his own day, are the same.  This fact ought to give us pause, at least.  Are we doing the same kinds of things that these religious leaders were doing in Jesus’ day?  Do we place heavy burdens on people, which we are unwilling to lift a finger to move?  Do we do all our deeds to be seen by others?  Do we love to have the honor, recognition, status, and respect that, in the minds of some, goes along with being overtly pious?  What about our leaders and ministers?  Do we get off on public affirmation, or gain some vain satisfaction from being called “reverend?”
We Christians are infamous for our hypocrisy because of the way many acted, and still act.   Back when we are considered the de facto established religion of America, many abused that power and influence.  Hypocrisy I think is a liability mainly for people in power.  And people remember for generations that we sang about joy with the sourest of faces, that we talked about forgiveness but were not good at forgiving others, that we preached peace and supported war, proclaimed justice while perpetrating injustice, affirmed God’s love while expressing in our lives what can only be called hate.  This still goes on, God knows. 
Parents are often accused of hypocrisy by their children.  Children can see very clearly the distance between a parent’s words and actions.  And parents have a natural tendency, I think, to have their words reach for ideals that their behavior doesn’t quite attain.  We want our children to be better than we were, so we give great advice and make great rules, based on our long, hard experience... but too often we didn’t or don’t take our own advice or keep our own rules.
Leaders are prone to the charge of hypocrisy in the same way.  They take on the burden of setting an example, of maintaining social standards, of preaching and teaching what is best.  But that also means that when they inevitably fall short it is more visible and obvious.
There is this sense in which hypocrisy is a product of our trying to be better, trying to do better, holding ourselves to a higher standard, and striving to improve our life.  We all fall short of our own ideals, I think.  This is especially true for the kinds of ideals we hear about in church.  Aren’t we all hypocrites then?

I am acutely conscious of what a hypocrite I am.  I don’t want to be.  But I am very conscious of the yawning gap between my preaching — which has lately been an exposition of Jesus’ words and actions — and my behavior.  I am not nearly as in tune in my own life with Jesus’ blessings as I would like to be.  Am I poor in spirit?  Am I pure in heart?  Am I merciful, gentle, mournful, and a peacemaker?  Do I hunger and thirst mainly for righteousness?  Am I persecuted?  Hardly.
I give myself a generous C+ on these scales.  And, as I have said before, I know very well that I break all ten commandments on most days before breakfast, at least in spirit.  This is because of the various evil systems in which my lifestyle involves me without my even thinking about it.  Was the cotton in my bedsheets once picked by slave children in Uzbekistan?  Was the wood that my bedroom floor is made of once standing in the Brazilian rainforest?  The electricity powering my clock, the natural gas burning in my furnace, the paint on my walls, the fruit and grain in my breakfast... was it all produced, manufactured, distributed, and sold in a way that demonstrated equity, justice, fairness, and peace?  Of course not.  It came to me by the blood, tears, and sweat of poor people and workers all over the world; and in the process made many other people, who didn’t do any of the work, very wealthy.                     
Maybe I hold myself to a nearly impossible standard.  But I think that Jesus wants us to know how we are connected to each other and to the Earth.  He would want us to be conscious of how the quality of these connections matter.  All the decisions we make, even just breathing, we are expressing our commitment to either God or to Caesar, either to the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Empire of those who dominate this world. 
In this sense we are indeed all hypocrites, and the more clearly we hear and proclaim the call of Jesus to live according to the values of God’s Kingdom, the more aware of our own hypocrisy we become.  The deeper we scratch the surface of our own lives, the more horrified we must be at the suffering of those who bring us our necessities and conveniences.
But what Jesus talks about here is more than hypocrisy.  He is looking at the scribes and Pharisees, and he sees not just their hypocrisy, but their attitude towards their hypocrisy.  And he sees the attitude — and the nasty, self-righteous, smug, judgmental practices — that their hypocrisy leads to in their relationships with others. 
Realizing the yawning gap between our words and our actions ought to make us more humble... but in the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, it didn’t.  They appear not to have been conscious of any such gap.  Indeed, to even suggest such a thing to them was tantamount to treason and criminality.  They felt, like every establishment, that the stability of whole society depended on them being legitimately in power.  The very survival of the nation was based on their being in charge.  To undermine their authority was to undermine the integrity of society itself.  Such is the view in every generation of the 1% (or fewer) who control things. 

Realizing our own hypocrisy, facing it, admitting it, confessing it... this is sort of the first step.  Hypocrisy is really a kind of blindness.  Once we begin to see it in ourselves, once we begin to ask the question about the gap between our words and our actions, then we have begun to turn away from it. 
Hypocrisy is most lethal when it is accompanied by self- exaltation.  It begins to lose its power over us when we are moved to sorrow, remorse, and humility.  So Jesus concludes his talk with his famous aphorism: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It is the lack of humility and absence of responsibility exhibited by the religious establishment that Jesus is most upset about.  Can a humble person “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”?  Will a humble person be “unwilling to lift a finger to move them”?  Would humble people “do all their deeds to be seen by others”?  Would they “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi”?
What about folks who give themselves multi-million dollar bonuses as a reward for wrecking the whole economy?  What about those who justify having others bail them out by saying they deserve it?  What if the same people are strict about imposing financial austerity on others, even foreclosing on people’s homes?
No.  A humble person is deeply aware of the gap between Jesus’ blessings and one’s own behavior.  That awareness is what makes one humble in the first place.  When Jesus says “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” I wonder if he means more than grieving for someone who has died, or something lost.  I wonder if he also means a kind of grieving for one’s own sins, one’s own shortcomings, one’s own failures, one’s own participation in evil systems.  That’s supposed to be why monks and nuns wear black, you know.  It’s an expression of mourning for their sins.
As in 12-step groups, the first step in healing is realizing you have a problem.  Our problem is the distance between God’s Word and our actions.  You cannot go through the 12-steps without a rather comprehensive humility, they tell me.  And that kind of humility is essential for the Christian life.
So Jesus says his disciples should not hold themselves up over each other.  “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  And call no one your father on earth,” Jesus says, “for you have one Father — the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” 
None of us is Lord or Master.  None of us is better or closer to God.  Some of us may have special training and we all have particular callings, but there is not supposed to be a hierarchy, a pecking order, among Jesus disciples.  There are no superiors and subordinates, in his family.  Elsewhere, Jesus points out that in God’s Kingdom there are brothers and sisters, mothers and children, but no fathers.  We have only one Father or Lord, and that is God.  And there are no mediators between God and humanity except him, the one Mediator, Jesus.  And we all relate to him.
“The greatest among you will be your servant,” says Jesus.

Think of the saints of the church, those in history who followed Jesus well.  Some of those figures were more powerful in the world than others.  And certainly we do not lift them up as in any way mediators between us and God.  We don’t pray to them or consider them our teachers in any but the most derivative and secondary ways.  They are exactly like us, in every way.  They are us, in a sense.
And something I think they all have in common is a humility and a deep, personal awareness of their own failings and shortcomings.  They were not superior, or self-righteous.  They did not claim elevated status.  They did not think of themselves as saints, in any special way.
These were servants of God and people.  They did their best to live according to God’s law and Jesus’ blessings.  They were anything but perfect.  Each had their particular failings.  But they give us hope for that very reason.  For what God did with these folks, God can also do with us.
But it’s going to take humility, and confession, and remorse, and commitment to change and find new ways of living together, according to Jesus’ commandments.  It will take finding out whom we have hurt, and making amends.  It will take gathering in peace, forgiveness, non-violence, and love.  And it will mean standing as an inconvenient and puzzling witness, both to the prevailing injustices of our world, and most importantly to the possibility of God’s new order for life. 

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