Sometimes, when I read a scripture lesson in which Jesus says something really, really pointed, I wonder if I am on the giving side or the receiving side of what is being said. Today’s scripture lesson, in which Jesus denounces hypocrisy with a version of the classic-and-catchy phrase, “practice what you preach,” leaves no such ambiguity. As someone who first stepped up to a pulpit in 1981 and has had the audacity to do in the years since then, “preach” isn’t someone else’s word. Jesus – or at least Matthew’s recalled version of Jesus – is saying to me, to the Church, to everyone who makes public pronouncements, that if we’re going to talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. That’s an important concept to take seriously at all times, and even more so this weekend as the US prepares to count the ballots on Tuesday.
The concept of hypocrisy in the New Testament (cf. Kuiper) comes from a Greek word used for actors: The root meaning is to speak or act under an assumed character; to be a stage player, a pretender, a poser. Hypocrites live the lie, exhibiting a significant difference between what is in their heart and what they appear to be overtly and publicly. To be a hypocrite is more than merely having low standards or failing to follow through on a promise; it is to make demands of others that you are exempt from, or to proclaim as sinful, behaviours that you secretly engage in.
The brief version of today’s sermon says, yes Jesus, message received. As one who does preach, I regret past hypocrisy and will do my best to avoid it in future. But that makes all of this just a bit too simple… and I’d like to hear from two more voices, before any sense of this being anywhere near a “complete” sermon.
First, is New Testament scholar Jack Dean Kingsbury. Each gospel writer wrote their version of the Jesus narrative in a way that would “speak to” a particular group of people, and Professor Kingsbury suggests (p.131) that the audience Matthew wrote for was urban and upper-class, noting that in today’s reading from the 23rd chapter of Matthew the admonition against using terms like “Teacher” or “Father” may well be because of a class split in the early Church, with many worshippers being of much lower social standing than their leaders. Matthew, says Kingsbury, wanted to make sure that this split didn’t widen.
I like this angle, because it helps to explain a lifelong disconnect I have felt with Matthew, compared to Luke. Luke, I find more accessible and folksy, whereas Matthew has more of a top-down feel to it. Compare, for example, their accounts of birth of Jesus: Luke focuses on Mary, and the visit by the Shepherds to the Christ Child, while in Matthew the focus is on Joseph-descended-from-David, and visitors of high standing from the East. But rather than working against Matthew, it seems to me that this urban/affluent perspective might give this gospel a particular “in” when speaking to the Church in the northern hemisphere in our day.
The Church in the Northern hemisphere (or, “the West”, depending on how one names it) is quite accustomed to having power, but now finds itself in a situation where Christianity is much more central and vibrant in Africa, Central and South America, and much of Asia, than it is in North America or Europe…and I hear in Matthew’s words a call to the Church to step away from the trappings, step away from the possessions and the status and the superiority that used to be attached to Christendom, step away from two-faced pronouncements and learn what it means for individuals and collectives to walk with Jesus and trust Jesus and assume that Christ Jesus is actually present to your day and your life and your decisions and your everything. These words in Matthew encourage the listener to stop making a big show about their religiosity and their status and instead, to trust that God is good, God is the teacher, God is the loving parent… the very things that Churches in the south find a lot easier to accept, than many of us in the northern half of the globe. Matthew may well have a specific ability to speak to Canadian mainline Churches “from within”, with Jesus, as remembered by Matthew, calling us away from long-held privilege, and toward the dynamic, unstoppable force of love we know as God. This call away from privilege, especially white privilege, is one of the main reasons that the United Church of Canada’s General Council voted last week to put specific work to deal with broad-based racism within the Church, and you can expect to hear much more about that in coming weeks.
The second additional voice I’d like to share, comes from a friend named David Roche. Our family met David many years ago at Naramata Centre, and I believe he spoke here at Canmore as well. His book The Church of 80% Sincerity is written from his experience as a person who lives with a significant facial deformity, and the ways that this shapes the way he relates to the world, and the world relates to him. Rather than berating the world and the Church for insincerity, David suggests that most of us humans are capable of being “80 percent sincere 100 percent of the time, or 100 percent sincere 80 percent of the time.” (p.7)
Here, I find a really important corrective to the way that hypocrisy gets dealt with in 2020. Repeatedly in media and social media, hypocrisy gets us focusing on the person rather than the message. How many times have we read critics of a Greta Thunberg event, for example, saying things like, “well, how did she get there, by foot?” Skip the urgency of what is happening to the climate, by focusing on something else, and somehow one feels as if they are on the moral high ground all the way through. It is so important, especially in these fractious times we live in, to stop pretending that there is such a thing as a life 100% freed from hypocrisy, or a perspective that is 100% freed from bias, or that there has ever been a preacher or leader or politician or parent or “role model” who has managed to “practice what they preach” 100% of the time. (And just to be clear about it, this doesn’t mean you should say hurtful things then make sure you follow through on them, and it doesn’t call us to avoid hypocrisy by never saying anything about anything – it’s a call to integrity, not a call to silence).
Right beside Jesus’ words about hypocrisy, are his words about humility, and these David Roche’s words align well with them. “While I may inspire others” David writes, “I am not too inspiring to myself. I look over my life and see that it is full of mistakes, misdeeds (intentional and otherwise), compromises, cowardice, substance abuse, failure to love, failure to risk and risks foolishly taken…. As a practicing member (indeed, the beloved founder) of the Church of 80% Sincerity, I have come to accept my gifts as well as my flaws. And to see that sometimes they are one and the same.” (pp.9-10)
As someone who has had a life-long battle against the dressed-up demon known as perfectionism, and the false assumption that sincerity, and truthfulness, and follow-through are expected to always happen at the 100% level, I am so thankful for these words of David’s, injecting some grace into this whole discussion of hypocrisy. I recall Jesus walking into a potentially deadly situation where a woman was threatened by her community, saying that “the one who is without sin can cast the first stone” (John 8.7), sharply reminding us that no human can claim 100% adherence to high standards – not even the saints.
Part of being a human being, reliant on the grace of God, is to own up to the fact that there will be places where our actions have not measured up to what we’ve said out loud. I do not intend to let public officials off the hook when they have intentionally held others to a higher standard than they have held themselves, or when they have knowingly made promises they never intended to keep – a certain “public health guarantee” comes to mind – but in the divided and judgmental ways of 2020 there is also something to be said for correction offered firmly, lovingly and personally, as opposed to hitting the keyboard and immediately springing to attack.
Practice what you preach, says Jesus to the leaders of his day, to religious leaders and communities of faith in our day and, well, to everyone. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t set yourself up as better than others. Set aside your desire of status and adulation, turn your reliance toward God. And when you miss the mark, turn to the God of hope and grace and new beginnings, apologize where needed, and try again. These are the marks of the very human community that Christ calls us to, a way of being built on more even footing, a way of honesty and integrity and grace and God’s own guidance. May this be so. Amen.
Davis, D. Mark. “Matthew 23: 1-12”, https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Matthew as Story. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
Kuiper, Dale. “Hypocrite.” http://www.prca.org/Word%20a%20Week/Word02.htm
Richards, E. Randolph and O’Brien, Brandon J. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012.
Roche, David. The Church of 80% Sincerity. NYC: Perigree, 2008.
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.