A Warning against Hypocrisy (from Matthew 23:1-12)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (The entire passage is linked below.)
Sometimes I find it difficult to relate to the stories of the ancient world underpinning the biblical lessons that we study each year – but not this one. In our beloved city seemingly built on the pillars of reputation and resume, it is hard to imagine a more Washington-applicable parable than the blinding pride of the Pharisees.
Ironically, Jesus notes that the Pharisees intrinsically know what is right, they do preach the truth – “do everything they tell you,” he says. But he continues, “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Instead of acting as the leaders they should have been, they simply told others what to do and shirked their own responsibilities. What an incredible disappointment: The leaders of the community would be saying the right things, but not living by example; they add to the legalistic burdens of their community members in a self-righteous haze rather than compassionately guiding them to the freedom found through an authentic relationship with God.
Moreover, the Pharisees depicted in Matthew 23 were showy, driven by praise and clout. I imagine that Jesus did not actually care what size their phylacteries were (the small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah), but he narrows in on their underlying intention. The impetus for the wide phylacteries and the long tassels was not for personal spiritual renewal, but rather solely for attention – to be seen as the most religious and the most pious. Pride is such a relatable feeling – the desire to appear capable and admired, to hide our flaws, to pass for more than we are; but at its core, pride is an embodiment of our deepest anxieties and fears, truly a lack of trust in our own self-worth in God’s image. And Jesus once again turns human logic on its face with a reminder that what God values most is not in line with our worldly priorities – it is those who are humble who will be exalted.
The season of Lent represents the antithesis of pride. Instead of continuing daily life in our habitual, self-focused way, it is an opportunity to pause and identify and embrace our temptations and weaknesses by fasting (literally or figuratively) and engaging in prayerful practices and almsgiving. The purpose of this annual exercise is not simply deprivation for its own sake, nor is it a friendly reminder of our regular failings in self-control or deficiency of spiritual practices the rest of the year. Instead it is an opportunity to step back, and intentionally and humbly take action to draw closer to God.
This Lent, whether our chosen discipline is fasting from a particular food or habit, the addition of a new prayerful routine, or the practice of compassionate almsgiving through one of the many outreach activities occurring at St. John’s, may we strive to shed our Pharisee tendencies and embrace humility with joy.
Links to the appointed readings for today: