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Sunday, January 24, 2010

unChristian: Hypocritical (Matthew 23:23-28)


Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Today we are continuing in our series of messages on the theme unChristian. This series of messages is based on a book by the same name that is a comprehensive compilation of some compelling research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christians and the Church.

This series of messages responds to the fact that persons age 16-29 have opted out of the Church at a rate five times higher than that of persons age 65 and over. That should concern us. These aren’t just “some kids.” These are YOUR kids. They’re your grandkids, your nieces and nephews, your neighbors, your co-workers. They grew up here. Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, I stopped going to church about the time I started college or joined the service or started working. I eventually came back. I’m sure they will too.”

But we’re seeing it doesn’t work that way anymore. More and more, those who have grown up in the church are walking away and never coming back, and an increasing number of young people haven’t grown up in the church, but their experiences with Christians has already put a bad taste in their mouths.

It’s not that they just got out of the habit of going to church. They’re saying “We reject Christianity.” It’s not that they necessarily reject God or Jesus, but they’re turned off from church. And their primary reason isn’t theological, it’s the Christians they’ve known. It’s important for us to hear where we’ve gotten it wrong, so we can have the hope of getting it right. May we pray.

When young outsiders are asked about their perceptions of the church, 85% responded that they perceive Christians to be either somewhat or a lot “hypocritical.” Their experience with Christians leads them to believe that we say one thing and do another.

Down in Texas, three brothers grew up working on the ranch. Every day around 5pm, they would head to the local bar and enjoy a beer. As time went on, they all moved away, but made a pact with each other that every day at 5pm, they would go to a bar, order three beers, and drink together, even if by long distance.

One brother found a bar to go to every afternoon. After several weeks, the waitress said, “I notice you always come in and order three beers. You open all three, and take a sip from one, then the next, then the third, and so on. If you want, I’ll be happy to bring those to you one at a time.” The man explained what was going on, which actually sorta made sense, and the waitress was happy to keep bringing him three beers at once.

But one day, he walked in, looking a bit forlorn, and only ordered two beers. He sat over in the corner, gazing off into the distance, slowly nursing the two beers. The waitress came by and said, “You know, I noticed you only ordered two beers, and I’ve just got to say, I’m really sorry about your brother.”

The man said, “No, no, my brothers are both just fine. But last week, my wife and I joined this Baptist Church, and I had to give up drinking, but both of my brothers still have no problem with it.”

Well, that’s certainly one connotation of the term “hypocrite.” The word “hypocrite” comes to us from the Greek, and literally means “one who speaks from behind a mask.” In Jesus’ day, it actually had some positive meaning. For instance, if you were an actor on the stage, you were said to be a “hypocrite.” It meant an actor – someone who was pretending to be someone or something else.

I first appeared on stage when I was about 4, and I loved it. Maybe this surprises you, but I took a shining to the limelight and being center stage. Here I am in one of my favorite roles – playing Felix in the 1996 Niagara Falls High School Production of The Odd Couple.

One of the first and most critical things for any actor to do is understand their character. It’s not just enough to memorize lines – you have to know who this person is whose life you are walking into. What is their motivation? What are their relationships like? How would they respond in a variety of situations? In one sense, an actor is a hypocrite by pretending to be someone else.

But this use of the word is not how Jesus intended it the 13 times he uses it in the Gospel of Matthew. Of the religious leaders, he says that they are hypocrites, meaning they pretend, they are play-acting, as if they are something they’re not. They were pretending to be the people of God, but they just hadn’t gotten the point. Jesus is talking about the scribes and the Pharisees – the religious leaders, in other words. They were the most pious, holier-than-thou, self-righteous people you could find.

Pharisee is Greek for “stuck up religious snob who just doesn’t get it.” Pharisees thought they were better than everyone else because they knew the law better than anyone else, and they were there to enforce it. But while they may have nailed the lesser elements of the law, they failed to follow its most crucial aspects.

Jesus spoke out pretty strongly against that. Jesus was really concerned with people who claim to be seriously-committed Christians and are aggressively telling other people how to be seriously-committed Christians, but whose lives don’t line up with that. People who, sometimes by their judgmentalism or the way they approach their faith can make other people feel really small.

The entire 23rd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is a vitriolic attack by Jesus against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. What I’d like us to consider here is if there is anything that Jesus said to 1st century Jewish religious leaders that might apply to 21st century Christians.

The scribes and Pharisees devoted themselves to studying and interpreting the law. Over the years, different restrictions and statutes had been added, and it had become a complicated and cumbersome thing. But Jesus reminds the leaders that the point of the law is to facilitate a relationship between humans and God, and to facilitate a better relationship among humans. However, many of the religious leaders had elevated the law to such a high and prominent place that following every jot and tittle was more important to them than the relationship they were supposed to have with God. The law itself, the thing that was supposed to facilitate a relationship with God, had actually become an idol above God and a barrier blocking the relationship with God. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees.

Before we laugh too much, this is not all that foreign to the experience of many Christians. Far too many Christians are worshipping the Bible more than the God who is revealed in the Bible; far too many Christians are more in love with the words of Scripture than they are with the God revealed in Scripture. When we worship the Bible instead of the God of the Bible, we turn the Bible into an idol, and we simultaneously abuse the Bible and dishonor God.

Jesus exposed their idolatry. Jesus exposed the fact that they cared more about a certain moral code recorded in all those thousands of individual laws than they cared about the God who gave the law.

And, let me tell you, people don’t like having their idolatry exposed. Inevitably this week, I will get a letter or an email from someone saying that I’m down on what the Bible says or that I’m twisting Scripture or that I’m watering down the Gospel. My grandfather had a saying that he used frequently. If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one you hit. As a pastor, I have to constantly ask, “Is the Bible an idol for us? Do we love the Bible or a particular interpretation of the Bible or a particular theological framework more than we love God?” I am here telling you that the Bible might actually say something different than what we want it to say. If we have built our worldview on an idol – even one as important as the Bible – then we’ll likely lash out at anyone or anything who threatens it. After all, that kind of thing got Jesus killed.

Jesus is critical of the scribes and Pharisees who have made an idol out of the law and who think they are better than other people because of their religious convictions. In the chapter immediately before today’s Scripture reading, Jesus is asked to articulate the greatest commandment. He says it is this: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. And a second is like it – to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The entirety of the law and prophets, he says, hangs on these two things (Matthew 22:34-40).

It’s about having a relationship facilitated between us and God and a better relationship among humans. It’s not about following a list of certain do’s and don’ts , about carefully selecting and naming a list of sins or forbidden behavior and avoiding everything on the list.

Jesus blasts the scribes and Pharisees for just this type of restrictive interpretation of the law. He says they tie up huge burdens and place them on the shoulders of the people and are unwilling to lift a finger to help. In other words, they dictate stringent standards for other people to live by, and then fail to live by those standards themselves. They do everything for the sake of appearance – everything in their religious life is aimed at bringing glory and honor to themselves instead of God. It was all about looking good in front of others.

But then Jesus comes round to it in the 23rd verse. Woe to the scribes and Pharisees, he says, for they tithe mint, dill and cumin, but neglect the weightier matters of the law. In Leviticus, the tithe of agricultural produce is discussed (Leviticus 27:30-33). The people were to give this as an expression of thanksgiving to God and for the ongoing work of the temple. Mint, dill, and cumin were the smallest of all herbs; Jesus is saying they painstakingly separated out exactly 1/10 of the leaves from these small plants so they could follow the exact letter of the law, but missed the point entirely. They have neglected the weightier matters of the law. Jesus has already said in the previous chapter that the greatest command in the law was to love God and love neighbor. Here, he names those weightier aspects of the law – justice, mercy, and faith. In the Old Testament prophet Micah, we find these words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice, mercy, and faith – the weightier aspects of the law have been ignored while people focus on the tiniest bit of minutia.

And really, it’s a fine line. Because, as a Christian, there are things and attitudes and behaviors we need to let go of as we grow in God’s sanctifying grace. There are things that still cling to us that would be a barrier in our relationship with God and with other people, and we’re called to turn from these things. So maybe you say, “I’m going to stop getting drunk or using bad language or smoking or something else.” And, you find that you’ve stopped cussing or getting drunk or who knows, maybe you stop drinking all together! And then as you begin to experience the freedom from these things, you begin to notice other people doing them around you. And as you notice other people doing them around you, you feel pretty good about yourself because you’re not doing those things anymore. But then you start to tell people around you what you’ve observed about the behavior of others. “Hey – did you notice the sort of language she uses? Hey – did you notice how much he drinks?” And pretty soon the devil has you just where he wants you, because what he did was get you to trade cussing for self-righteousness and arrogance and pride. That’s a winning proposition for him every time. Because, as unpleasant and uncouth as cussing might be, it’s not nearly as dangerous to your soul as spiritual pride and believing you’re better than someone else.

The hypocrisy of the Pharisees stemmed from their failure to grasp the theological concept that comes to us from one of the most formative books of my generation: Everyone Poops. The Pharisees had really convinced themselves that they didn’t! Trust me, everyone does. We all mess up. We all have things in our lives that are messy. We all do things that displease God and we all have sin in our lives and fail to measure up.

The scribes and Pharisees – these who aggressively attacked others for failing to follow every statute in the law – were so concerned with the unrighteousness of others that they failed to see their own self-righteousness.

Jesus talks about how the Pharisees will clean the outside of the cup or the plate, but inside, it remains filthy. Things can look pretty good from all outward appearances in any of our lives, but it turns out that real transformation hasn’t taken place. It’s easy to pretend to be a Christian for a few hours a week – we can put on nice clothes and comb our hair, tuck our Bible under our arm, greet each other at the door, and can do a pretty convincing job of looking holy. We can do all the right things so that, on the outside, it appears that we have our religious act together. But we can ignore all those things on the inside – those matters of the heart that really define our character and who we are – those things that really matter.

All around us are people who are in need of hope, and healing, and the gentle touch of God into their lives, and we are primarily concerned with whether or not we should listen to secular rock music, or if someone lets the f-bomb fly, or if someone spills coffee on the carpet, or if someone wears jeans and a sweatshirt to church instead of a suit.

I wonder if Christians in too many places haven’t neglected the weightier matters of the law and have chosen to follow the smallest details of it. If too many Christians have cleaned the outside of the cup only, and inside their hearts have nothing to do with justice, mercy, or faith.

Now, I have a confession to make. I’m a hypocrite. No big revelation. I see this person I want to be, this person who is full of the love and grace of God, this person who is earnestly striving to be the hands and feet of Jesus, who is kind and patient, who sacrifices himself so others can have what they need, this person who is bold and courageous and always does the right thing and then I see myself – this person who fails time and time again to do just that. I realize just how far I am from the person God wants me to be.

But here’s the thing: most non-Christians don’t expect us to be perfect. They don’t expect us to have it all figured out, and be some great moral example. The problem isn’t that we’re hypocrites – it’s simply being willing to admit that we’re hypocrites. Christians need to be honest with ourselves about the failings and shortcomings in our own lives – we need to admit that we are hypocrites. It’s time to let our walls down, it’s time to stop speaking from behind a mask, it’s time to admit that we don’t have it all figured out, it’s time to simply be real and honest with ourselves. They want us to be like Jesus, but they want us to be willing to admit that we haven’t gotten there quite yet.

One of the consistent complaints against Jesus from the scribes and Pharisees was that he ate with tax collectors and sinners. And an interesting thing here, the sinners were drawn to Jesus. Jesus didn’t make them feel small. He didn’t condemn. If there was anyone who could have been self-righteous, it was Jesus. If there was anyone who could have gone about picking apart other people’s lives and their sins, it was Jesus! He had every right to do it, but he didn’t. Instead, he spent time with them and taught them about God and freely shared the love of God with them. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, someone took an interest in them and recognized them as created in God’s image and believed that God wasn’t finished with them yet, and low and behold, when people are honestly and openly invited to enter into that setting, God can get into their lives and transform hearts.

Jesus wants us to do the same thing. Jesus wants us to be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings and our failures in order that we can continually lean on God’s grace. But then, Jesus wants us to meet with people and share God’s love with them, even and especially with those whom we might be quick to label “sinners.” Jesus made people want to know more, and they soon wanted to be more like him. The more we can welcome people this broadly, the more people will be drawn to us, but not only to us, the more we can be used as a channel to introduce people to God.

Friends, we are all hypocrites. We all want to be like Jesus, and we realize how bad we are at doing that. But rather than congratulating ourselves for being inside and condemning those who are outside, rather than hiding behind a mask of what we think a Christian is supposed to look and act like, I invite us to simply be honest. To be honest about our faults and our failures and our shortcomings and to realize that we are all a work in progress. To lay aside our pretenses and stop keeping up appearances, because an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.

An entire generation is searching for authenticity. They want to find people to trust and confide in, but they often find more transparent, authentic people outside the church. We have opportunities to help others, if we are willing to put aside our unChristian ways of interacting with them.

Phillip Yancey, in his book What’s so Amazing About Grace? makes this candid conclusion: “Having spent time around “sinners” and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.”

If only our view of outsiders was more like that of Jesus. Think of the overwhelming perception among young people that we are merely hypocrites. Are you burying people – insiders and outsiders – under the weight of a self-righteous life? You don’t have to. Your life can point people to a life in Christ that bursts with freedom to love, restoration, purity, and transparency.

When you see the burdens of others, do you lift a finger to help? I have to ask, are you lifting a finger now? Which one?

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