Woe to You Hypocrites

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O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Proper 9, BCP 230-31)

Hypocrite (noun), a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs. (Greek hypokritḗs a stage actor, hence one who pretends to be what he is not).

In today’s Gospel Reading (Mt 23: 1-12), Jesus’ excoriates the Pharisees, those who should be the holiest amongst the people, those who teach the law to the people, but in Jesus’ eyes, they do not do as they teach.  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. (Mt 23: 13).“ Not only hypocrites, showing off with the best garments, the longest fringes on the four corners of their garment (tzitzit), the largest phylacteries, getting the best seats in the synagogue. They also administer the Temple taxes, and place terrible burdens on the poor, who have no long tzitzit or any phylacteries, or any place in the synagogue to sit.  By their actions, they slam the door to God’s realm in the face of the simple, the poor, the lowly.

Under the Law of Moses, Israel gained favor. But if your leaders don’t obey the law, but require it of you, extorting taxes and exacting punishment, how can you trust them. Or the Law.  Or God. Certainly not the Son of God in the person of this itinerant preacher whose time has not yet come, whose Glory is not yet seen except by the few. If the Pharisees and scribes are hypocrites, the people can’t look the other way.  It undermines faith, trust, hope. And that is the problem with hypocrisy. It is not only the sin of the hypocrite, but it spreads out its evil.

As law goes, Roman civil law is a thing of beauty. And Mosaic Law, while complex, is the law of the God of Israel. But law doesn’t turn out so well if it isn’t the law of the heart, as Jesus demonstrates time and time again, breaking the law, healing on the Sabbath, eating forbidden food, welcoming the unclean. And what are the commandments we still have?  Love God, each other, and don’t do things that will hurt each other, like steal, kill, commit adultery, covet each other’s goods or life.

While some fine contemporary theology argues that Jesus the Rebel, as indeed he was to some extent, was advocating not only conversion as amendment of life, but revolution – that was what Barabbas stood for, what the people wanted – I claim that what Jesus taught was not political, although it clearly crossed the political lines of the day, as it does today. He was focused on a life of faith, of obedience, of love. What Jesus is, is the fulfillment of the quote from Jeremiah 31 and repeated by Paul in the Letter to the Hebrews (8:10), “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” No one with God’s law written in their minds and on their hearts would dare boast, for fear of God, would dare force the last pittance from the poor, at least without giving everything including their last pittance first. Nor would any crush the poor, kill the helpless, imprison the innocent. Would you or I face God for a final judgment with that kind of life written all over us?  How far would we test God’s mercy? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? (Rom 6:1).”

We can do little to the hypocrites in the U.S. Government except pray for them without judgment. We can invoke civil protections in voting and through the judiciary, so long as those exist. We can protest. But are we turning our protests into false gods? Are we buying into one horror show after another as distractions to what is at the heart of our faith? Women marched.  School kids marched. What changed? Shouting and making clever signs may be fun and make us feel good about ourselves, but how different are they from long tassels and front row seats in the synagogue? The only sign Jesus ever had was the one on his Cross.

Jesus says that we are equal to each other, but under the rule of God. Not rabbis, fathers, teachers, but equals, sisters and brothers. As the reality of the church developed, Paul suggested that we could skirt around this by seeing each other as parts of one body, because pragmatically no collection of people can sustain, even with faith, prayer, and the Holy Spirit, without some organization. But Jesus is clear that there is one Father, as he is Rabbi, Teacher, but also Master and brother, through whom we are adopted by our Father. All other fathers and leaders are only pale reflections of the Father, and our servants.

When we stand up in Jesus’ name, are we really representing the Gospel? We have to self-examine constantly. Hypocrisy is a root sin, because it is self deception, and a host of other sins spew forth from it. We are not fooling God, even if we fool ourselves. The rights of people of all gender identity are important because to Jesus all people are important, but if we use that issue, on either side, as a point of division or mutual distrust, and claim religious self-righteousness, that is hypocrisy. If we fall into line with self-depreciation over past and present racial bias and worse, and say we are doing it for Jesus, we are being hypocrites. Humans have been creating in-groups and out-groups since Cain and Abel. We are told to love friend and enemy alike, not to transfer hate from other to ourselves. Substituionary atonement is either a false premise or was accomplished on the Cross, if that is our theology. Replacing the supposed powerlessness of women with categorizing all men as participants in the evil “patriarchy” is hypocrisy, if the desire is equality and mutual respect. Seeking power in Jesus’ name is always wrong. Radical reconciliation in love is the Jesus Movement. Love upholds the struggle to Reclaim Jesus in a secular world. March, protest, but in true humility. Pray in faith. Obey God’s law to love, forgive. If you find yourself exalting malice against your enemies, stop and confess. How this will play out is in God’s kairos, not our chronos. But we are his Body, and our acts count.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

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