First the passage:
Matthew Ch 23 1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
When Jesus accused the Pharisees of losing the plot there was a contemporary feel to his protest against the Church. In a whole series of telling verbal blows he is basically saying that self interest has overtaken the intention to be servants of God.
His illustrations would have more impact on his audience of the day than they would for us because they would have known what he meant by phylacteries and fringes. Whereas our clergy might wear an alb and a stole for an official occasion, in Jesus day (and in fact even today when the orthodox Jewish leaders say their prayers) they would wear a shoulder shawl with fringed tassels called a zizith and they would strap on two little leather boxes (the phylacteries or tephillin) – one on the forehead and one on the wrist.
The phylactery on the wrist contained a parchment roll with four passages of scripture from Exodus and Deuteronomy – and the same readings but on separate tiny scrolls on the forehead. The direction for the wearing of phylacteries and tassels both come from verses of instruction in the Old Testament and both are intended to be worn as reminders of the law and the intention to respect the law.
Unfortunately there were a number of things the Pharisees could also do for show to emphasise just how much faith and piety they had. For example they might invite people to give them the title of rabbi. If they wanted to be even more ostentatious they might invite people to call them Father. This was the title originally given to those like Elijah who were considered to be the father figures of the Church. The seating at worship also emphasised their status. The children and those considered to be unimportant sat down the back. The higher the status – the further to the front they sat – and those of highest status sat at the very front in the synagogue facing the crowd. To emphasise their piety they could wear ostentatious large phylacteries and get very large tassels for their prayer shawls.
Jesus concern was not so much that they wore phylacteries or fringed tassels – but that they were pushing themselves forward in an ostentatious manner – or even thinking that this show of status replaced the need for servant-hood and piety.
I may get myself into trouble here – but in many mainline Churches the titles for religious leaders have become important, the seating is sometimes designed to emphasise the importance and the robes in some cases have become so ostentatious that the last thing you think of when you see such a splendiferous outfit is that you are looking at a humble servant. Perhaps some have forgotten that the stole which is nice to wear in decorated form is actually intended to be a symbolic yoke – indicating a preparedness to be a true servant to others. As the status increases, the temptation is to forget about the intended obligations. In some Churches the elders still sit facing the congregation. That is not a problem as long as in sitting facing the congregation they are being constantly reminded of who they are there to serve. In some feasts like those which accompany weddings and funerals – the VIPs and those seen as important Church people get places of honour. Please note, I am not against offering respect to those who deserve it – but for those who are offered respect there is always a serious challenge to simultaneously try to hold to genuine attitudes of servant-hood and care for ones fellows ….and in so doing start to earn the respect.
When people are honoured the honour is not necessarily theirs as of right and certainly not as of birthright. Saint Francis of Assisi was close to the mark when he suggested to his followers the only thing we really own as of right are our own sins.
It was, of course, not just Jesus who noticed the growing hypocrisy. In the collection of religious writings called the Talmud, the Pharisees were classified in one place as being of seven different kinds, six of whom were described with contempt.
There was the shoulder Pharisee who in effect wore his good deeds so that everyone noticed. There too was the wait a little Pharisee who would tell you about the good deed he was going to do – but never quite got around to doing it.
The bruised and bleeding Pharisee was the one who not only knew it was wrong to speak to a lowly woman in public but went to such an extent to avoid meeting one that he might shut his eyes and bump into walls in his ostentatious attempt to show his purity.
There was the humped back Pharisee who would walk with an exaggerated stoop to emphasise his humility.
The ever reckoning Pharisee was the one who focused on keeping a score of his good deeds so that he might prove his favour with God.
There was the timid or fearing Pharisee always worried about divine judgement – and finally – the only sort of Pharisee who found favour in the Talmud – the God-fearing Pharisee who genuinely did love God and delighted in love for his neighbours.
For us the traditions have now changed. But don’t forget that almost the whole chaper 23 of Matthew is about hypocrisy – which is derived from a Greek word Hypocresis meaning actor. Where Jesus became seriously concerned was when he thought those involved in religious tradition were behaving as actors… making a great show of the act but forgetting the true meaning of the observation. Although the 12 verses above may not mention the word hypocrite the passage is clearly describing actions of hypocrisy, and although the word hypocrite is not used in this particular reading yet in the following verses it is used no less than six times.
Yes the actions have changed and in our tradition we no longer expect our Church worshippers to wear those leather phylacteries on our foreheads and wrists and fringed tassels on prayer shawls. Yet think for a moment about our current religious traditions. We still have plenty that for us are significant. We bow our heads in an attitude of humble prayer. Yet if we pray for the sick and show the sick no compassion outside this place, it is empty show – an act.
We gather to partake of the elements of communion. Are we really using the ceremony of communion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus life and how it unites us in mission – or are we thinking about other things as we go through the impressive actions.
We sing those familiar hymns – yet are we thinking of what the words might mean – and more important are we prepared to act on the sentiments we sing.
We expect familiar ritual and lay great store on keeping our Church setting as a familiar and worshipful surrounding. Yet this can only be good providing we are using it as inspiration for our daily interactions with those neighbours we gather to say that we love. If we were to treat our neighbours in exactly the same way as we did without the time of worship – what else could we be doing but acting?
In a sermon on this text the Rev Roy T Lloyd once recounted the following story of a man who arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big mustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.””
Albert Schweitzer was indeed a walking sermon. A brilliant doctor, musician and scholar he could have had fame and fortune in Europe. Instead he went to minister to the sick in a forgotten corner of Africa. Many of us can talk about Christianity. When we encounter it in action – we cannot help but be humbled by the experience.
Contrast this with those who are entirely focussed on themselves and their advancement. Corporate greed certainly creates millionaires but there is also something very uncomfortable about the way in which some big corporations exploit the poor and vulnerable.
These days when Church features less and less in everyday life, hypocrisy can still be readily identified. The Occupy Wall Street protests show that even in societies where the whole economy is based on a degree of capitalism and self interest, naked greed with no thought to the consequences for others is seen as reprehensible.
There is a line between the rich and irresponsible and the rich and responsible which is not always immediately obvious yet when you see the genuine benefactors in action, the contrast with those who steadfastly refuse to care about those they have cheated on the way to their millions are widely recognised for what they are.
Few for example would question the ethics of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet where they show such a responsible attitude to philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have been a genuine benefit to hundreds of thousands. On the other hand it is hardly surprising that when a large investment bank pays its managers obscenely large bonuses while refusing to care about those bankrupted by unwise bank advice eventually the observing public will protest in the strongest possible manner.
That so many, included many with little or no church connection could recognise that the investment bank practices were reprehensible to the point that they called for protest even at an international level suggests a way to treat hypocrisy. Perhaps it even reminds us that hypocrisy is recognisable beyond a Church setting. How much easier it should be within a Church setting since we frequently hear of ideal standards. Perhaps in our church setting we should have even higher standards than those the protestors have been prepared to act on if our faith is to have practical meaning.
But there is one more thing. The danger of a reading such as that we encounter today is that we will think it is really just a story about what Jesus thought about Pharisees. We get a little closer when we realise that hypocrisy can be encountered in the everyday world – and start to have sympathy with those who want to protest about Wall Street. We arrive at a better starting place when we acknowledge that hypocrisy can even extend to those present, those such as ourselves. Self-knowledge is a useful place from which to embark on the next stage of a journey.