PROPER 26, A
Micah 3:5-12, Matthew23:1-12
What fun it is to unmask a hypocrite! Especially one who has been telling others how to live – that is, a religious hypocrite.
There has been a long string of such unmaskings within recent memory – pastors and preachers who have been embezzling money or buying mansions or multiple fancy cars. They preach Jesus but live like Herod.
Let’s face it, we sort of enjoy seeing famous or wealthy folk
getting their comeuppance and even more so if they have pretended to be righteous.
Then there are those who were found to be stealing sermon material from others or cheated to get through seminary. Or the very worst, the clergy who have used their position to abuse others, especially those who have abused children.
On the other hand – – -how many of us can claim righteousness? Who among us has never been guilty of hypocrisy? Even Paul bewailed his inability to always do what is right, even though he knows what is right and wants to do it, but often fails to do it.
Some years ago I decided that I would never shop at Walmart and the reasons for that decision had everything to do with my religious faith. The family that owns Walmart has more money than the bottom 35 – 40% of our population. Yet the store pays most employees less than a living wage and it has cheap stuff because it’s made overseas, often by women and children in sweatshop conditions.
Still, when my cousin suggested a shopping expedition there because they had sweat clothes on sale, and I badly needed some sweatpants, I went with her. And that’s only one example out of innumerable others I can think of.
Both Micah and Jesus take on the hypocrites of their day in the lessons we just read, but their approach to the issue is different. Micah sounds as you’d expect an Old Testament Prophet to sound. He describes the issue this way: “The rulers of the House of Jacob and chiefs of the House of Israel abhor justice and pervert all equity. They build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. They give judgment for bribes, the priests teach for a price and the prophets give oracles for money.”
Then Micah warns that such behavior will bring ruin on the country. “Zion shall be plowed as a field and Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins . . .”
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus complains of similar hypocritical activities, but his tone is quite different. For one thing, he begins by paying respect to the office the Pharisees and scribes hold. He tells his followers to listen to their religious leaders and to do what they are told to do.
Then he calmly points out that they should not take these leaders as role models, because they do not do what they ask the people to do. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to life a finger to move them.”
He then points out their wrongs and how they misuse their office for personal pleasure and gain. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 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 marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
Jesus then turns this into a lesson for his listeners instead of calling down destruction on the land, as Micah did, or even suggesting that the religious leaders will somehow be punished. No, Jesus forgets about the hypocrites he’s just exposed and instead tells the crowd how NOT to become like them. But 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, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” (And how long have our churches ignored this lesson?????)
So what’s the problem with calling our priests “Father”? The same thing that’s wrong with having pulpits built high above the congregation, or having the altar fenced off and no one but “Father” allowed inside. It isn’t just the religious leaders who perpetuate hypocrisy, it’s also the institutional church and the people in the pews.
When I was ordained, I found people assuming that because I was the priest I was the boss of the team. But I wasn’t supposed to be boss of the team; the whole team was to take the place of the Pastor. But since I like to be boss, I had to fight both myself and others to not run things. And I didn’t always succeed!
No matter how much we may enjoy seeing a hypocrite exposed, our real concern should be about eliminating hypocrisy from our own lives. And, I suspect, if we set about to do that, we will be too busy to worry about hypocrisy in other people.
The way Jesus turns this conversation around to be about his listeners tells us that it’s our own behavior that we are responsible for, not other people’s behavior. I’m not sure that anyone but Jesus has the moral high ground to stand on in calling others to account, although doing so is still part of speaking the truth to power.
Preachers and teachers, politicians and celebrities will continue to rise and fall in the court of public opinion, but our responsibility is to clean up our own mess, whatever that may be, and to be grateful that we have a place to come each week with others who are trying to do the same thing.
Many years ago I was going out with a man who had no use at all for the church. I think his grandfather had been a missionary and his father had grown up in poverty. Normally we did not discuss church at all, but one evening he said to me, “I just don’t see how you can go to church and listen to some hypocrite preach to you.”
“But it’s doesn’t matter if the preacher is a hypocrite,” I replied. “After all, he’s just another human being. What matters is what kind of person I want to become. What he preaches can still help me with that.” It may have been the only time I got the last word with him.
Pastors and preachers are human beings first and foremost, so it’s not surprising that they are also vulnerable to hypocrisy. We all know that we often fall short of the mark. We admit as much each week in the confession, and we also know that God forgives us and loves us anyway. I’m so grateful that we’re all in this together – and hope you feel the same. AMEN