The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (New International Version)
Reading the Gospel text for today, I try to imagine what emotions Jesus might have experienced when confronted by some religious leaders about his lack of attention to traditional and ritual hand washings – maybe frustration, anger, sadness, exasperation, disappointment, irritation, aggravation, or discouragement.
Perhaps Christ felt all those emotions. Whatever Jesus was feeling at the time, I can easily see him taking a deep breath and exhaling a great big *sigh* over the hypocrisy displayed in front of him.
Hypocrisy is a disconnect between espoused values and actual behavior. Whenever there is an incongruence between what we say is important and how we really live, this is being two-faced and duplicitous.
The men who came to see Jesus were plain old insincere hacks who practiced religious quackery. And Jesus saw right through their fake pretention of righteousness.
First off, this narrative is neither a blanket condemnation of Pharisees nor a dig on rituals themselves. Instead, Christ’s words were directed to specific persons using their rituals to leverage an appearance of religious superiority over others.
That type of motivation for engaging traditional rituals completely ignores the ethical and moral intention of those practices.
Sometimes folks can get so doggone wrapped up in how faith is represented that they lose sight of the faith itself.
Hypocrisy has to do with our motives – not so much what we do but why we do it. Rituals themselves are good. Why we do them, or not, or how we go about doing them, gets at the heart of our objectives for engaging religious practices.
We need to ask ourselves:
Are our spiritual practices truly a worship offering to God, or are they merely mechanisms for keeping up the appearance of holiness?
Hypocrisy is acting a part which is not our true self. It is, instead, to live from the false self through the attempt of providing an idealized person to the public. What we ought to be doing is embracing the true self and realizing our common humanity with one another in genuine devotion to God and service to others.
Religious hypocrisy is particularly insidious because it uses what is sacred for selfish purposes. It damages the credibility of the religion, creates idolatry, and papers over hate with a veneer of pretentious piety.
The hypocrite is one who is a bundle of disparate parts. They have a massive need of integration to a whole and real self. The cost to facing this is the vulnerability of exposing oneself as flawed, imperfect, even ugly. Many persons have no willingness to be viewed by others as such, and so they maintain their play-acting and continue to seek the attention and accolades as a model religious person.
We all must come to grips with the reality that God cares a whole lot about why we do what we do.
If and when the forms of faith become tools of oppression to place heavy burdens upon others backs, then those forms have supplanted the faith itself.
Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and from the heart the hands and feet move. Whenever we care more about being and appearing right than getting it right and becoming better, then we have a heart problem. The heart of the issue is the heart itself. Clean up the heart, and everything else follows – not the other way around.
The probity of today’s Gospel lesson is that we might misinterpret what is important to God. We may be playing the hypocrite yet have the belief we are genuine. The capacity for our hearts to enlarge with love is in direct relation to an awareness of the hidden motives buried within those hearts.
Evil intentions and motivations are what separate us from God – not our race, class, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, behavior, rituals, or anything else on the outside.
If we find ourselves being nit-picky of others, this is usually a clue that the unconscious self is trying to protect us from facing the pain of our own sins by projecting and focusing on another’s supposed missteps with tradition or ritual.
Fortunately, Jesus came to this earth full of grace and truth. There were times that Christ set aside niceness and decorum to go for the heart. In shining a light on the motives behind the deeds of people, some repented and received the good news of the kingdom of God; and others resisted to maintain their illusion of control and superiority.
Nobody could ride the fence with Jesus around. You either loved him or hated him.
The beauty of grace is that when we squarely and uncompromisingly face our sins and let go of the things we consider so important, and turn to God with authenticity, we are welcome at his Table.
Most holy and merciful Father, we acknowledge and confess before you our sinful nature, prone to evil and slow to do good, and all our shortcomings, offenses, and malevolent motives. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Christ’s way of grace and truth, in wasting your gifts of compassion and justice, and in forgetting your love.
O Lord have mercy on us. We are ashamed and sorry for all the ways we have displeased you. Teach us to hate our errors; cleanse us from our secret faults; and forgive us our sins; for the sake of your dear Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.