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Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 1:10-18

New Testament Reading: Luke 18:9-14

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 the past.

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 dogmas we

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 pettifogging

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 the forest.

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.




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