Roger Williams’ objection to this situation was tantamount to naming the colonists hypocrites! Here they had fled to the New World in search of religious freedom, yet withheld it from all but themselves. He spared no words or harshness of tone to get his point across.
Hypocrite. This harsh accusation has been on my mind as I have been pondering today’s text. In Matthew 23 we encounter an address by Jesus to the crowd and to his disciples regarding the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Misunderstanding of this text has caused a negative view of the Pharisees that pits them as always at odds with Jesus. The polemic language is strong: Hypocrites! Blind guides! Blind fools! You snakes! And my favorite, Brood of vipers!
These harsh words seem strange coming out of the mouth of Jesus who says to love your enemies and in just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 5 he warns that to call anyone “fool!” places one as liable to the hell of fire!
But, as anyone knows, the political scene of our day is full of such name calling! It doesn’t matter which side one is on, the verbiage is the same. THEY are wrong! THEY don’t get it! THEY are hypocrites! THEY say one thing and do another! THEY want to ruin the country! It was the same in Roger Williams’ day. He wrote a treatise called “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution” directed toward his contemporary John Cotton. Both men shared a common regard for the Bible and both believed that truth could be squeezed from every verse or instruction. John Cotton answered Williams with “The Bloody Tenent Washed.” Williams then responded with “The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody: By Mr. Cotton’s Endeavor to Wash it White in the Blood of the Lamb!”
And it was the same in the 1st century of the Common Era when this text was written. For the Greek philosophers of the day, name calling and denouncing the opponent’s philosophy was how the game was played. The accusations did not have to be true. If someone was an opponent then you denounced their philosophy altogether OR, if not that, you pointed out how they did not follow their own teachings. The author of this gospel who was located in this time period has constructed a street argument placing this way of arguing with opponents into Jesus’ mouth.
At the time this text was written the Jewish people were still reeling from the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. There were two Jewish groups still intact following this event. Both groups were able to survive because their worship practices did not depend upon a physical temple. One group was the Pharisees who had brought the temple practices of the day into the everyday living. The other group consisted of those who followed the teachings of Jesus. Both groups were Jewish and Torah observant! The schism between Christianity and Judaism did not occur until much later. This is not a “Christians against Jews” argument. It is an intra-Jewish argument.
With these things in mind, let us look again at the text. We see two “philosophies” mentioned; the Moses camp: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” and the Messiah camp: “You have one instructor, the Messiah.” In the text, Jesus commends the philosophy of the Moses camp: “Therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it!” But he then criticizes how they live: “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” What exactly were the Pharisees doing? “They tie up heavy burdens too hard to bear, lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” This could perhaps be about their expectations of how the Torah was to be interpreted and applied. The Pharisees believed that oral tradition carried the same weight as the written law, so perhaps these Pharisees were going a bit far in their interpretations.
“They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” What in the world is a phylactery? I love Google! A phylactery is something still used today by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish men. It consists of two leather boxes that contain four scriptures from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on parchment. These boxes approximately 2-4 inches square are literally strapped onto the forehead and upper arm as a physical reminder to keep the law of God in one’s mind and heart. Fringes refer to the prayer fringes on the robe. The Pharisees are following the prescription of the Torah by using phylacteries and wearing fringes, but are being accused of making a show of it.
“They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to be called rabbi.” This is a reference to self-importance. Pharisees were very respected for their knowledge of and their teaching of and their practice of the Torah. They are being accused of doing so only for public acclaim.
The Gospel writer shows Jesus saying to the crowds and to his disciples, But YOU do not act like this. None of YOU call yourselves rabbi as you all learn from the Messiah. None of YOU flaunts yourself as having any sort of importance. Because YOU know, as it states in verse 11: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Hmmmmmm. Really? I wonder. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. I more than wonder, I think this text is really not about the Pharisees at all. I think it is a mirror that the gospel writer is holding up to his rag tag community of believers in Jesus. It is an opportunity for them to reflect on their own integrity. It is a warning against hypocrisy, a warning to the followers of Jesus that they examine their own integrity in their own Torah observance; to examine their own integrity as followers of Jesus.
Hypocrite. The word makes me uncomfortable. How about you? On one hand it could be our greatest fear that someone might think we are one. On the other hand, I think often we are the last to realize it when it is true! And sometimes we know we are hypocrites, but hope it won’t matter much.
When my ex-husband Ross, who is gay, was remarried to Paul in 2005 there was no marriage certificate to be signed. Their union was honored in the church, but not by the state. This reality weighed heavily on my mind when Joe and I were married in 2006 in the same church, and we signed our marriage certificate. Hypocrite. The accusation (from my own heart) is somewhat softer now that Ross and Paul are now legal in Iowa. Oh, and then there’s my day job. After being laid off in 2008 I found a job with a government contractor that moves soldiers. I oversee invoicing from the moving companies that pick up and deliver service member’s household goods. I really need the job, I have to help pay the mortgage and it’s only temporary, but I wonder how I am complicit in military madness. Hypocrite.
Occupy Wall Street has generated much interest and spawned many spin-offs including Occupy Minnesota. I found it interesting that in Albuquerque organizers renamed their efforts “Un-occupy – Albuquerque” in solidarity with Native Americans. I hear the rhetoric, “Down with Corporations” and agree that there is way too much money at the top, but I myself haven’t taken time to see where my 401K is invested. Hypocrite.
This winter I plan to go to Chiapas, Mexico on a global justice trip. The purpose of the trip is to become aware of the issues that concern the indigenous Mayan peoples represented by the Zapatistas as they oppose the Mexican government and to be in solidarity with them. I am only too aware of the fact that for most of my life I have remained oblivious to how I represent the occupier in my own state and my own country when it comes to Native American issues.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite, but to NOT be a hypocrite is hard. To not be a hypocrite is a heavy burden, and sometimes it feels too heavy to bear. In order to not be a hypocrite I have to not only admit that I am one, it may also mean that I have to give something up, something related to the privilege I carry in this society of systemic heterosexism and racism (and many other isms)! It is a hard thing. And as soon as I point my finger at the injustices I see, (to use an old cliché) there are three more pointing back at me.
Roger Williams didn’t want to be a hypocrite either. His disagreements with the Puritan quest to build the perfect Christian community and his inability to remain as a member of any particular church stemmed from his belief that there could be no perfect church without the presence of Jesus himself. He believed that Jesus would come back again and when he did he would show us how to be baptized and how to live as the perfect Christian community. With that in mind, he chose to remain unaffiliated and wait for that to happen. I take theological and exegetical exception to some of Roger Williams ideas, but perhaps he and our Gospel writer agree. It is only Jesus who gets to call anyone hypocrite. And this is the good news.
“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” These words at the end of our text echo those words that follow the parables that Doug preached on recently. Parables that told what the kingdom of God is about. This Gospel Mirror reminds us that the kingdom of God is about turning the world right side up. The kingdom of God is about turning hypocrites inside out. The kingdom of God is about becoming students of one other. The kingdom of God is about making room at the table. The kingdom of God is created on earth when the followers of Jesus “Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly with their God.”
As we go about being the church God calls us to be; hanging our banners of justice, entering into dialogue about world peace with the Baptist Peace Fellowship, Bridging cultural differences with our sister church in Nicaragua, caring for our environment and being responsible composters in our church kitchen, feeding hungry people, lobbying at the capitol, and everything else we do, let us do it with integrity. For some of us, that will mean giving something up. For others, it will mean doing more. For others, it may mean taking a break in order to let others get into the fray. As we continue to work toward up-righting the injustices of our world, may we do so with integrity and may we do so with love and let us leave the name calling to Jesus! Amen.
“The Noise of Politics” by Water Brueggemann from Prayers for a Privileged People
We watch as the jets fly in
with the power people and
the money people,
the suits, the budgets, the billions.
We wonder about monetary policy
because we are among the haves,
and about generosity
because we care about the have-nots.
By slower modes we notice
Lazarus and the poor arriving from Africa,
and the beggars from Central Europe, and
the throng of environmentalists
with their vision of butterflies and oil
of flowers and tanks
of growing things and
We wonder about peace and war,
about ecology and development,
about hope and entitlement.
We listen beyond jeering protesters and
soaring jets and
faintly we hear the mumbling of the crucified one,
feeding the hungry
and giving drink to the thirsty,
about clothing the naked,
and noticing the prisoners,
more about the least and about holiness among them.
We are moved by the mumbles of the gospel,
even while we are tenured in our privilege.
We are half ready to join the choir of hope,
half afraid things might change,
and in a third half of our faith
turning to you,
and your outpouring love
that works justice and
that binds us each and all to one another.
So we pray amid jeering protesters
and soaring jets.
Come by here and make new,
even at some risk to our entitlements.
Go now in peace. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. Amen.