Old Testament Reading:
New Testament Reading:
Text: Matthew 23:13-28
Today I would
like to try a little experiment and do some old-fashioned expository
preaching. That is, I would like to follow a portion of text and comment
briefly on it as I go. But there is a general theme: hypocrisy,
which is the theme of the passage as well. Indeed one cannot escape it.
I must give one word of warning. This
passage is a series of unrelenting, unfair, and uncharitable attacks on
the Pharisees. It is clear that Matthew hates his former
colleagues, Jewish scribes and Pharisees who have not chosen to follow him
in his conversion to Christian faith. For this he cannot forgive them. And
in company with most ancient polemicists Matthew attributes the worst
possible motives to them. He just cannot believe that any right-thinking,
well-meaning person would not agree with him!
Incidentally, we see the same thing
today when a sectarian says that if you don't accept his gospel it is
because you just want to sidestep repentance or because Satan is blinding
you. And this similarity between the Pharisees assailed by Matthew and the
Christian extremists of today is quite significant: it bodes that these
verses are of more utility in warning us of the dangers of being bad
Christians today than of telling us the real character of the Pharisees of
There are many ways to be a hypocrite.
Common to them all, I suppose, is a certain ironic disparity between
one's ostensible intentions and one's observable actions. But this
could happen for many different reasons. Indeed, one might take a leaf
from William James's book The Varieties of Religious Experience and
speak of the varieties of religious hypocrisy. After all, it is such
variety that makes for the spice of the afterlife for Uncle Screwtape and
his fellow epicurean gentledevils, as they savour the bouquet of this
vintage of damned soul after that.
But on to the text!
Verse 1: "The scribes and the Pharisees
sit on Moses' Seat [this was a special seat in each synagogue where the
president of the synagogue sat]; so practice and observe all that they
tell you but not what they do; for they preach but do not practice. They
bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but
they themselves will not move them with their finger." The ostensible
problem with Matthew's former colleagues is that they simply don't keep
the commandments they preach. It is as if their religious energy
is fully spent in the preaching of them.
For Matthew the problem is not that
they do not quite succeed in keeping the commandments of God;
rather, they do not even try. It is as if the scribes are the
leaders of a fraternity cooking up ever more outrageous stunts to require
of freshmen who want to be initiated. We picture them in cynical and
sadistic sport as they cruelly haze the religiously naive. I think there
are in fact such people; they are the professional religious charlatans
whose business depends on maintaining a saintly facade, but whose
interests are purely mercantile, and who thus have no intention of living
a life of personal holiness. Marjoe Gortner moved in such circles. He knew
radio evangelists who would pause at the mike to take another stiff belt
before resuming their tirade against the evils of alcoholism! He himself
would try to pick up pointers from Mick Jagger's stage antics to use in
his healing rallies even as he condemned rock music! This is the
hypocrisy of utter cynicism, and one can only preach about it in the
third person. One can only warn the gullible: caveat emptor! It
does no good to preach to the charlatans themselves. They are immune to
such preaching. To them it is all part of the act. And for the record, I
simply cannot believe Matthew's opponents deserved this rebuke.
Let's skip down to verses 13-14, where
we encounter a different variety of hypocrisy. "But woe to you, scribes
and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against
men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to
go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea
and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you
make him twice a child of hell as yourselves." This type of hypocrisy is
certainly no caricature. That is, whether or not it applied to the unknown
Pharisees under consideration here, it is certainly common enough! We
needn't tax our imaginations to come up with examples!
This variety of hypocrisy, I think,
boils down to the charge of false advertising. Wittingly or
unwittingly, someone is claiming to represent religion when he knows not
the first thing about it.
There is no insincerity here. He may
really think Christianity is a matter of legalistic moralism,
worshipping an intolerant and vindictive God who loves nothing more than
the tang of the sulfurous fumes of the hell to which he consigns the
damned. But if so he has not entered the kingdom of heaven which is by
nature righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly,
often people won't accept the religion thus represented! "If that's
Christianity, I want no part of it!"
In counseling with people over the
years I have encountered nothing as commonly as this kind of protest
against false religion imagined as true. Many people have received just
enough religion, as the saying goes, to inoculate them against it!
There is a real intellectual courage
here, but it must be admitted that it is pathetic and sophomoric, too.
Such a person can see readily enough that what this fire-breathing
preacher or that nun with the hob-nailed boots said about religion was
wrong. So they rightly threw it over. But it never occurs to them that
maybe their instructor was wrong on the central point of what religion
is really about in the first place! For example, the claim, made by
some churches, that sex is vile and dirty is absurd, as any young person
can see. But what never seems to occur to some people is that it is
equally absurd to think that Christianity implies such a notion!
Whoever it was who turned you off to
religion, to Christ, to God, by spreading such slanders has not only
failed to enter the kingdom, that is, failed to grasp what religion really
is and thus failed to experience it, but in turning you off to any
religion, true or false, they've cheated you out of it, too!
Indeed, woe to them! But I say unto
you, they have received their punishment, precisely by cheating themselves
out of the kingdom. By forgoing its blessings.
Here's a horrifying thought: what if,
of all the possible candidates, these people, false witnesses to religion,
should become the recruiting arm of the church? And what if they should
succeed? God spare us! I will tell you, I think they have
succeeded. I think this because as studies have shown, the fastest growing
churches are those that stoke their fires with the pitch and bitumen of
intolerance and carrot-&-stick evangelism.
There is a place in the heart where we
love to believe that only one creed is true and that unbelievers will
perish for not sharing it. There is a part of us that delights to shout
cannot support with reason and to think
them all the more true the less we can prove them! It is poor human
insecurity that pants after mystery, miracle, and authority, and sadly the
most effective evangelism is that which panders to these baser instincts.
And there is nothing like the zeal of the convert! If the proselytizer was
a child of hell, the proselyte will be twice as much one.
Where is the hypocrisy here? Why, quite
simply it lies in the irony that the very attempt to promote godliness
results in the increase of boorish fanaticism and narrow intolerance which
wounds the Holy Spirit and withers its fruit.
I must hasten on. Verses 16-22 are
Matthew's rejection of scribal haggling over which sorts of oaths are less
seriously breakable in the sight of God. He believes it is all pedantic
that has lost touch with common sense.
Thus he calls it not hypocrisy but blindness. That is not quite the
same thing, but it can easily enough turn into hypocrisy. It does
as soon as one becomes so preoccupied with the trees that one cannot see
And precisely this has happened in
verse 23: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe
mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the
Torah, justice, mercy, and faithfulness; these you ought to have done
without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and
swallowing a camel!" This wonderful lampoon scarcely needs comment. But
let me ask again precisely where the hypocrisy is supposed to lie. It
lies in the claim that religion deals with the ultimate questions, when in
fact it has come to deal with petty minutiae, thumb-twiddling distractions.
The more one allows oneself to become preoccupied with the fine-tuning of
religion, the ornamental jots and tittles of God's command, the more one
forgets one is looking through the microscope.
One starts to think it is the full-size
world one is considering, as in Poe's tale, "The Sphynx," when the
narrator is startled to see what he thinks is a giant armored and winged
behemoth lumbering down the mountainside outside his window, but then
realizes it is only a moth climbing down the window pane mere inches from
his eye! The trouble is losing perspective.
There are other kinds of hypocrisy
mentioned here, but I think I will wait for another Sunday to discuss
them. In conclusion I would like to ask where hypocrisy comes from and
what you may do about it on this communion Sunday. Many of the types of
hypocrisy we have looked at today just require a healthy dose of reality.
But the hardest place to look for reality is inside yourself. The
most difficult thing to have a true perspective on is yourself.
The most odious kind of hypocrisy is
that self-blindness where one practices the very vices one condemns, only
perhaps in a disguised form. Freud explained the mechanism here. It is
called reaction formation. There is a vice or sin that you fall
victim to, in desire if not in act. You cannot or will not deal with it.
But you must do something, so you deny and repress it. You bury it, but it
is still there. In order to deny this fact, of which you are still dimly
and uncomfortably aware, you do two things. You start to preach against
that sin with surprising vigor (because it is really yourself you
are preaching to, and he is hard of hearing!). Think of Jimmy Swaggart,
who at last has something to teach us after all.
Jung told us what you would do next. He
said that having denied the truth about this shadow side of yourself,
you would start projecting it onto others, whether it was there or
not. The forbidden lust becomes a filter, a screen which colors all that
you see, so you see it in others even if it is only there in your own
eyes. Again think of Poe's story! The sins you imagine others to be guilty
of seem so terrible because it is really your own you are seeing
from up close! Perhaps there is a splinter in someone else's eye,
but to you it looks like a beam, because what you are seeing is really the
splinter in your own from up close!
Why do we refuse to come clean with
ourselves? About ourselves? Why do we persist in doing what Paul
called "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness"? Usually we accuse the
hypocrite of pride. That is his damning sin. He would make himself a God
perfect and infallible and cannot bear to face the truth that he is only a
poor mortal. Thus he makes it comically obvious to others just how mortal,
just how fallible he really is! And the poor fool remains oblivious! Hence
the limitless comic possibilities of the hypocrite! And we do not even
feel guilty about laughing at his pratfalls, since we feel he asked for
it. His religion is a pretense; all he does is to be seen by men, as
Matthew says, only he doesn't realize his performance is a comedy!
But I think we are being perhaps a bit
rough on the hypocrite, following too closely in Matthew's sandaled
footsteps. There is a more charitable way to view the hypocrite, and this
is a good thing, since it may make it easier for you and me to face our
own hypocrisy, should we ever become aware of it. I suspect that the
real problem of the hypocrite is not so much that he cannot believe in his
own sin, but rather that he cannot believe in a forgiving God!
He would rather deny his own lusts and try to atone for them by preaching
against them all the louder than admit them and risk facing an angry God!
Is that true of you? Let me tell you that if Jesus Christ is to be trusted
as any kind of religious authority, God is a forgiving God! We may have
difficulty in deciding what precisely the historical Jesus really said,
but if he said anything at all, he said that God is a forgiving Father!
Do you know better about God than Jesus
Christ did? Or are your standards higher than those of God himself, who is
willing to forgive you, though you will not forgive yourself?
Come today to the communion table and
meet the forgiving Christ. Do not shrink back from the table, as some do,
imagining that it is for the saved and the sanctified. It is not. It would
be a banquet with no guests if that were the case. There is a forgiving
God, who welcomes sinners, including all of us hypocrites. Come and reason
with him and your sins shall be washed clean.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
Carolina Web Design