Scripture Readings: Malachi 2:1-10, Matthew 23:1-12
Verses 1-11 from chapter 23 of the gospel of Matthew are not present in the other New Testament gospels, but verse 12 is included in the gospel of Luke. The authors of these two gospels have each introduced verse 12 in a different way, using material that was unknown to the other gospel authors or not used by them. Verse 12 says, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." In the gospel of Luke this moral is preceded by a parable about choosing the least significant seat at a wedding feast. In the gospel of Matthew this conclusion follows a teaching about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.
Scribes were teachers of the law. The word "Pharisee" comes from an Aramaic word meaning "to separate." The Pharisees were a reform group that sought to purify Jewish spirituality by strict adherence to the law of Moses. In verse 2 of the reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees say because the scribes and Pharisees are teaching the law of Moses. What a contrast this is with the statement in Romans 10:4 by Paul that "Christ is the end of the law [of Moses]."
In the gospel of Matthew the charge leveled against the scribes and Pharisees is that they do not practice what they preach. This is what we mean by hypocrisy. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says the law of Moses calls us to be humble, and the scribes and Pharisees are judged because they preach this commandment but do not obey it.
The reading from the prophet Malachi proclaims a curse on the Levites, the priests of Israel, for corrupting and profaning the covenant with God. The images in the passage are powerful and profane. Through the mouth of Malachi God says to the Levites, "I will curse your blessings," "I will rebuke your offspring," "I will spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offspring," and "I will put you out of my presence." Reading this text with the passage from the gospel of Matthew may easily create the impression that the leaders of ancient Israel and of Jerusalem in the first century CE were all hypocrites.
This is one reason why Christians have held Jews in such low esteem for two millennia. Yet, if the standard of practicing what one preaches is applied to the church through these two millennia, surely the charge of hypocrisy would be valid in every century. And today? We pray for the poor, but remain rich. We condemn economic globalization, but derive its benefits from our investments. We support justice for all, but are unwilling to give up our privileged positions or to change the economic system that continues to increase our portion of the earth's wealth.
Perhaps I have overstated the case, but aren’t we all hypocrites? Don’t we all fail to live up to the teachings of the church, which we support as Christians? Don’t we all fall short of loving God with all our mind and soul and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves? As Paul says in Romans 7:18-19, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." This is sin — the evil that good people do.
I confess that I feel hypocritical all the time. I lead prayers in worship, as if I am a spiritual person. But I know I am not a spiritual person. I know that I am a flawed husband and father. I have hurt my wife, and I have not been the father for my children that I wanted to be. I preach about loving our neighbors, but I can't see that I am doing much to love my neighbors. Frankly, I'm spending most of my time at my desk working on administrative details and writing reports. I spend little time teaching, preaching, praying, and serving others.
I see this as my sin, and I worship because I have experienced forgiveness that I understand as the grace of God. I am a Christian, because I am a sinner and have no other answer for my sin. I am not spiritual enough to feel close to God through my own efforts. And I am not moral enough to believe that I am worthy of the blessings I enjoy.
As Christian Americans, we must also confront the hypocrisy of our nation. President Bush said on Friday, "we must rid the world of evil." The notion that America is good, and those who hate it are evil is not only self-serving but wrong. Terrorism is evil, and the killing of innocent persons is evil. But the growing impoverishment of the majority of the world's peoples is also evil, and the violence and suffering that America is about to unleash in order to exact retribution for its suffering and shame will also be evil. Justice is good, but acts of vengeance are evil.
Our hearts go out to the families of those who lost loved ones, and we pray that the souls of all those who died may rest in peace. But we also pray for those who are so filled with hate for America, because of the transfer of wealth and power from their lands to the West and particularly to America, that they gladly sacrifice their own lives in violent acts that they understand as just retribution. And we pray that Christians in America will resist calls for vengeance and will remember the sins of the past that come with self-righteous anger, so these tragic acts of violence might not be repeated in our own time.
In Matthew 23:12 Jesus teaches that: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." If we proclaim our own goodness, we are guilty of the sin of hypocrisy. As the church, we are called to proclaim that God is good. Our mission is to preach and live the gospel, the good news that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we know in Jesus Christ. And we are called to embody that good news in our life together, as the body of Christ in the world.
If there is going to be good news in our time, it will not be that the markets are operating again or that America has punished those who have cruelly victimized its people. The good news is that God's justice and peace will prevail, that love is stronger than hate, and that joy will triumph over despair. So, let us witness to our faith, share our love, and proclaim our hope. Amen.
September 16, 2001