Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 5, 2017
“Was Jesus a Hypocrite?”
Matthew 23: 1-12
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I’m terrified of Muslims. I don’t want Sharia law in America.
OK. Let’s avoid that by separating church and state.
Nope. I believe in Jesus. I want this country to be more Christian.
OK. Let’s be more Christian. There’s some refugees over there who need help.
Nope. I’m not helping refugees while we still have homeless kids and veterans in America.
OK. Here’s a bill to help homeless vets.
Nope. I don’t want to raise my taxes.
OK. What about homeless kids?
Nope. Their parents are just lazy and want handouts. They shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford them.
OK. Let’s fund Planned Parenthood to help people plan for parenthood.
Nope. Some of that money might go for an abortion. I’m pro-life.
OK. Let’s give everyone a better life with access to health care for women, infants and children.
OK. So, you’re pro-birth, not pro-life. Once their born, shouldn’t we help families care for them?
Nope. That’s socialism. I believe in the Constitution, not dirty, dirty socialism.
OK. At least we agree on the Constitution. I especially love the part that gives everyone freedom of (and from) religion.
Yes! Freedom of religion. Except for Muslims. I’m terrified of Muslims.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, another church is doing a parody of liberal Christian values. As soon as we can point and say “hypocrisy” to one group, they can do the same thing back. And finally, we all have something in common! Hypocrisy. There’s a lot of it going around.
I googled “Trump is a hypocrite” and there were around half a million hits, some related to playing golf, executive orders, etc. I’d like to add, his refraining from judgment about a white man who killed 59 people but demanding the execution of a Muslim immigrant less than 24 hours after the tragedy. I then googled “Obama is a hypocrite” and I got another half a million hits, some of them no less true, like all the killing ordered by unmanned drones. Civilian casualties. Other charges included his big speech payouts.
But not especially surprising, when I googled “Christians are hypocrites,” I got 1 million hits – double the politicians. Sad, but not shocking. After all, things like “God loves everybody, except gays, Muslims…, etc.” Or the acrobatic act some Christians do: “Hate the sin, love the sinner…” Well, it just isn’t love. It’s hypocritical. The man who killed three shoppers at Walmart in Thornton had a Bible on the floor of his apartment.
But I was surprised to learn this: the phrase “Jesus is a hypocrite” registered nearly 14 million hits. I huffed to myself, Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite! How could anyone say that? People have Christians confused with Jesus! Isn’t that a sad statement? What does that say?
But such confusion was illustrated very clearly in a story in the Washington Post entitled: “Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen.” Joel Osteen is the mega-church pastor in Houston with the beaming smile. The pastor, worth $50 million, owns a $10 million mansion and a luxury yacht. He was called out because he didn’t open his Houston church to flood victims, a big enough facility given that it is housed in a former NBA arena. It wasn’t opened until the hypocrisy of it humbled him in the media. While people drove to Houston from all over on their own with their little fishing boats, social media was flooded with memes of him sailing by on his yacht waving at people on their roofs – Jesus loves you.
Oh, but hypocrisy sightings are dangerous! My finger pointing is dangerous. Please remind me to take the log out of my own eye before pointing out the sliver in Joel’s.
I clicked on some of the articles that said Jesus was a hypocrite and found one which I thought had merit and applied to today’s passage – or at least it applied to me and my smug contempt. The author reminded us, Jesus told his followers “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I stand judged. But Jesus? The idea that Jesus was a hypocrite!? Although, I have to agree, he was little “judgy” in today’s passage too, don’t you think? Jesus said “do whatever the scribes and Pharisees tell you and follow it. But don’t do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
Then Jesus continued, as you heard Kathy read, until he concluded, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Sounds kind of nice, an inspirational way to wrap it up, like, “And the moral of the story is…” I stand judged and humbled. The end.
Except, that’s not the end. The lectionary ends, but story continues. This part doesn’t usually get read in churches: Jesus then turned away from the listening crowd and looked over and pointed to the scribes and Pharisees and angrily said, “But woe to you, hypocrites. Woe to you, hypocrites. Woe to you…” Seven times to their faces (their reddening faces, steam rising off their hair). He judged them, and harshly.
With each charge he listed their hypocrisy, including, for example, how when they tithed, when they gave their 10% of such things as mint, dill, and cumin, Jesus said, “you do that but you neglect justice and mercy and faith.” Thomas Long described the burdens they placed on people through their myriad rules, standards, and directives as “moral bean counting.”
Jesus told them, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Meaning: You’re missing the big picture, you’re sweating the small stuff… Seriously, Jesus went off on them at bullet speed, hypocrite, hypocrite, hypocrite. Seven times. Five more times he called them blind – blind guides, blind fools. Snakes, broods of vipers. “Blood is on you.”
The crowd’s mouths were left hanging open, no one standing there could have misinterpreted his feelings or what he meant. And they might have thought to themselves, “Um, Jesus, what about that whole ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’ thing?”
But then, after his angry outburst, Jesus collapsed to the ground and wept. “Jerusalem,” he lamented, “Jerusalem, how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.” Then he walked out of the Temple, right past the place where two days before he had angrily overturned the tables of the moneychangers, and went up on the Mount of Olives and sat down. When he calmed down, his disciples came and they spoke privately. The next chapter in the Gospel of Matthew was about questions they asked and parables he told them, finally saying, “They’re going to come after me in two days.” These events all happened during his last week – the Tuesday of what we call Holy Week. “After the Passover meal,” he said, “I will be turned over to be crucified.” After listening to him go off on his religious leaders, I tempted to ask sarcastically, “ya think?”
Yet that’s what I so admire about him. I so admire his willingness to tell truth like that and accept the consequences. And, then turn those consequences around. Crucifixion became Resurrection. Death became life. Hate became love. Isn’t that what it means to follow Christ. Accountability – both of others and of yourself. And redemption. He showed us how. He knew what would happen to him when he spoke like that and he did it anyway. But of course, it’s always easier to admire the courage of someone else than it is to be courageous ourselves. I could never be Jesus. I could never be Martin Luther King. I could never be Rosa Parks. I could never be… Even though, all that is asked of us is to be (names ___, ___, ___.)
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"
We may not be called to stand up to power in the same way as Jesus, but each of us has a calling that serves the same purpose. For some it is speaking out, for some it is holding someone’s hand through it, for some it is feeding their hunger, for some it is crying with a victim, for some it is simply living with integrity and letting the chips fall as they may.
I can’t imagine what it would have felt like for Jesus to know that you’re going to be executed in three days. Yet, I can imagine how disgusted he was. His anger and frustration over the twisted ways God was represented to the world by them, such as God loves everybody, except… etc. Hate the sin, love the sinner, etc. The injustice and hypocrisy of it all. The hypocrisy, however, not of Jesus, but of Christians.
Now, it’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t pointing out the hypocrisy of some “other people.” Again, as we have to remember when we read through Matthew, this was a family affair. He was not a Christian saying these things about Jews. This is another text that gets used in an Anti-Semitic way, but Jesus was simply a prophet among his own whose strong words were critiques of his own leaders.
Jesus charged them with hypocrisy. I think it’s one of the worst things you can say about someone. You’re mean, or cheap, stupid, or incompetent, a phony; those things don’t bite or say quite as much about someone as “you’re a hypocrite.” My favorite use of it was Jane Fonda’s accusation to her boss in the movie 9 to 5: “You're a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Most of us try to avoid being called a hypocrite – though I demonstrated at start of my sermon how easy it is. It’s quick and easy to say, but hard to hear.
Maybe you’ve heard this: The pastor of a tiny church in a small town didn’t want to be called a hypocrite, but sometimes you just have to do some unsavory things. There were two brothers in her town who, over the course of many years, cheated, swindled, robbed and generally stole from everyone with whom they ever did business. Everyone in town and in the surrounding community reviled and despised these disreputable and dishonest men.
One day, one of the brothers died. They didn’t belong to a church so they had nowhere to hold his funeral. One by one, the brother visited the pastors of the churches in town, promising large sums of money to hold the funeral. But only if during the course of the service the pastor would refer to his brother as a saint. No one would agree, except the pastor of a church whose boiler had just quit for the last time. They were desperate and she felt she simply couldn’t turn down such an amount of money. But the townspeople were appalled and called her just another example of a money-grubbing Christian hypocrite.
Everyone in town and in the surrounding community came to the funeral. Not to honor the man but to see what the pastor would say about him. As the funeral came to an end, the pastor still hadn’t called the man a saint. The brother looked up and tapped on his check book. The pastor nodded and looked down at the coffin. She concluded the service by saying, "As you all know, the departed was an awful man who robbed, cheated, swindled and probably stole from everyone here. Amen?
But, compared to this brother, he was a saint! Amen.”
The lesson about hypocrisy in the Gospel of Matthew is difficult to hear because, especially during times like these in our divided country, it is so tempting to look for ways to prove it – in others. It’s easy. When it’s “them,” of course. Hypocrisy is much easier to see when you look outward than when we look inward. But that is our question if we are to be faithful to the text. As my friend Kate Huey said, “If we don’t wince when we read this text, we’re missing something crucial.” Is it hypocritical to call out hypocrisy in our leaders? Isn’t that what justice is about? The hypocrisy would be to ignore our own.
But what does this have to do with All Saints Day? What am I saying about our dearly departed loved ones? Of course, every one of the people we remember today was a saint! And every one of them wasn’t. They were all people who rose to moments of glory. And every one of them failed their best intentions at times, who had lapses in their moral judgments and made mistakes. I don’t think of sainthood as perfection as much as it is perseverance.
But they were all redeemed under the grace of the same God who turns death into life and hate into love. The grace of God which turns despair into hope and failure into triumph. Every one of them falls under the protection of God, whose love smooths out our rough places, whose truth lifts those who have fallen and humbles those who exalt themselves. Just like God shall do for every one of us. Through Christ, we are raised, saint, hypocrite, and all, just like God promises.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world