SERMON: 15 Pentecost B 9 2 18
When Jesus confronts critics he often uses the term "hypocrites." Today he exploded at the religious authorities because they were criticizing the disciples for eating without washing their hands.
"Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'"
Jesus knows that the religious authorities are trying to undermine him at every opportunity. Every single thing Jesus and the disciples do is watched closely. When something appears out of alignment with the hundreds of rules in the Hebrew Bible they try to make a federal case out of it. This isn't your mom saying, "Did you wash your hands?" before dinner. This is the equivalent, at that time, of a police officer threatening them with a fine or arrest or jail time.
Throughout the Gospels people are trying to play "gotcha" with Jesus and his disciples. And because they are busy proclaiming the Good News, that is, the Gospel, they really aren't able to commit a lot of energy to following the norms of behavior among the openly and publicly religious who spend a great deal of their time following the rules. So they get criticized for thing like eating without washing their hands and working on the Sabbath, even though their work on the Sabbath is always to help or heal someone in need.
This reminds me of a joke I heard about a fellow who boasted to his pastor, "I never go to church. Perhaps you have noticed that, pastor?"
"Yes, I have noticed that," said the pastor.
"Well, the reason I don't go is because there are so many hypocrites there."
"Oh, don't let that keep you away," replied the pastor with a smile. "There's always room for one more."
The definition of a hypocrite is "one who affects virtues or qualities he does not have." I suppose in the context of the joke I told, a hypocrite is one who pretends -- or maybe even believes --he lacks negative qualities he actually does have.
But we see it again and again, leaders and public figures and even friends and family members and, dare I say, our silly selves, pretending to possess qualities we wish we had but do not possess, or acting as if we are innocent of vices we well know boil up in us at times. The greatest truism of all time is "No one is perfect."
The point of Jesus calling out the hypocrisy of others is not to shame them. It is to get folks to look at their own behavior, their decisions and their actions. What Jesus wants us to do is to realize that mouthing virtuous thoughts and beliefs is not the same as possessing those virtues. It is too easy to say we are something we are not.
Hypocrisy, hypocrite, hypocrites and hypocritical are mentioned in the Bible a total of 25 times. Five of those references appear in the Hebrew Bible, 20 in the New Testament. Of the New Testament examples, 14 are from Matthew, 2 are from Luke, 2 are from Mark, and two are from Epistles.
We can gather from this that Jesus thought being hypocritical about righteous things was far worse than being ignorant about them.
Why do you suppose Jesus would feel so strongly about this? After all, Jesus reached out to and welcomed sinners at various points in his earthly ministry. Why would hypocrisy be such a big deal to him?
To tell the truth, I didn't have an answer to this question until I was almost through typing it. I suspect that Jesus was so critical of hypocrisy because it would mislead people. If I am acting all holy and righteous in my public life and you find out I'm robbing banks in my spare time, how does that leave you feeling about whatever righteous things I've been talking about?
There's an interesting side-note to this on page 873 of the Book of Common Prayer. It is one of the Articles of Religion from the Historical Documents of the church titled, "Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments." What is says, in essence, is that if, in fact, I'm breaking God's laws by robbing banks during the week, the Sacramental works I do here--baptisms and Communion, primarily--are still valid.
Isn't that a comfort to you? I hope so. It is to me. But what it doesn't say is perhaps more related to our Gospel of today. Because it doesn't say because of my ordination, my acts are acceptable. It says they don't invalidate my celebration of the Sacraments. If I were to be robbing banks during the week, I would be a criminal, albeit one whose celebrations of the Sacraments were still valid.
In terms of what Jesus was saying to his disciples and other followers, hypocrites can't be trusted in either the holy or the mundane because they are not faithful to God. They are faithful to the rules, not to the One which inspired them.
Jesus spoke of the state of the heart of the hypocrites and asserted that "...(T)here is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
Jesus knew that the endless rules that the religious authorities considered so vital did little to establish or grow a relationship with God. The role of the heart, where the soul and the conscience lived in the minds of spiritual people of the time, was to help us in that relationship with the Almighty.
Let's look at the list of evil intentions that Jesus enumerated: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. We can see that these are perversions of the free will which has been given us. They distort our lives instead of leading us to a closer relationship with God. And that is our ultimate goal: to draw near to God in faith, to do God's will, not to harm others or entice them into harmful behavior, acts which erode the soul.
That is why in our collect this morning we prayed that God would "...Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works."
These are faithful prayers which we pray, in the faith, in the hope and in the knowledge that God, if asked, will help us avoid those hypocritical choices that loom forever before us.
Jesus showed us how important that is, to insure our hearts are clear of wrong motives and thoughts so we can
better align our lives with our spiritual desires, to be at one with God and to do that which God desires for us: to love God and to do so by loving our neighbor. Amen
A sermon preached Sept. 2, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector