I know where Neapolitan ice cream came from. The creator couldn’t decide whether he (she) wanted chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. So we now can buy ice cream with all three flavors -- not mixed together, but nestled side by side in the carton. Similarly, I couldn’t decide whether to address humility or hypocrisy today. So I am neapolitizing my sermon. If this sermon had a title, it would probably be Hypomility. Or Humocrisy.
Those Pharisees that Jesus castigates – awful, aren’t they? They show off, praying so ostentatiously. Beating their breasts to illustrate how humble they are. Wearing the biggest phylacteries and the bluest and longest of tassels on the four corners of their outer robes. Boy, don’t they think they’re something? And boy, aren’t we supposed to think they’re something? Well, some of them, yes. But we shouldn’t paint them all with the same brush.
The Pharisees were “separated ones.” They were needed. They were separated into and for the service of, God. Being set apart, they were rather lonely, and if they were tarnished and bruised and hardened by that loneliness, we should be careful not to abuse still more for the wrong reasons.
The Pharisees were actually the heirs of a long history. We can trace them back to the time when, after the captivity in Babylon, the small body of returned exiles found the population of the Holy Land marrying strangers, desecrating the Sabbath, and growing more and more weakened, diluted by foreign idolatrous customs. It was this situation which had originally bound men together ******** (under Nehemiah) ******** to maintain and preserve the separated and unique character of the Jewish people.
So how does Nehemiah fit in? Well, there was The Exile (capital T, capital E) into Babylonia. Prophets and historians of the time figured that the exile was God’s punishment for Israel’s disobedience to God. Hence those who returned to Israel were determined that in the future they would not neglect God’s Law. They wanted to be faithful to it in all its details. Operative phrase – all its details. So all through the period from Nehemiah to the NT times these men, actually small groups of laymen, gathered round the local synagogues and pledged to observe and protect the heart of Jewish piety, dependent as it was upon the Scriptures.
Jesus looks at the Pharisees in the Temple and describes their hypocrisy. Yeah, they teach the law. It is good that they do. And, he tells the disciples, you should do as they say. But. They themselves do not follow the laws. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others – yet they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds in order to be seen by others; their phylacteries and fringes are overly conspicuous. They hog the best seats at banquets and in the synagogue. They love to be singled out and greeted with exaggerated respect in public. They exalt themselves – they act self-saved instead of God-saved. Too bad. They will end up humbled.
Yet is being humble such a bad thing? Not as long as you humility is genuine and not laid on thick with a trowel. I supposed if we focus on being humble, we fail. There was that wonderful song years ago that went “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble/ When you’re perfect in every way
Hmm. We should be humble. So if we decide we’re humble and brag about it, are we really humble? If we serve others in order to be admired, are we humble?
My older sister celebrated her 80th birthday last Sunday; there were 50 people at the party. She asked that there be no gifts. Instead, we were asked to bring a donation for her local food bank. She was hoping to end up with at least 80 pounds of food. So when her care giver and I dropped it off, they weighed it. She had taken in over 300 pounds. The gentleman who gave me the receipt asked if she would write a story and send photographs so they could feature what she had done. And I suppose his intention was a good one. It might encourage other octogenarians to do something similar. Maybe so. Kay doesn’t mind writing. She writes letters, including letters to the editor. But tooting her own horn didn’t appeal to her. She figures if the food bank wants to write her up, so be it. But she’d like to remain anonymous. She doesn’t flaunt the blue tassels on her outer coat. I think she does well with humility.
Hypocrisy, though, I’m not so sure about. And I lump myself in with her. Of course the hypocrisy Jesus sees in the Pharisees is on a different level from what we experienced, but it felt similar. A couple of the guests at the party had flown up from Central California to Portland and rented a car – two retired teachers whom Kay had taught with many many years ago. . . . One is a pleasant woman, soft-spoken and cheerful. The other . . . is not. Short on nice things to say. Not very pleasant in conversation. Turns out the other teachers on the staff hadn’t particularly liked her, though Kay says she was considered a good teacher.
Anyway, it was convenient for the two of them to meet in Fresno and travel together. To stay in the same motel. Same room. And by the end of the visit, the pleasant one was probably dizzy from her repeated eye rolls. Ellen would say something, and Melissa would roll her eyes. Ellen didn’t notice and the rest of us were sympathetic. Melissa also asked Kay’s caregiver if she could call and vent after they got home. My point? When they left, we did hugs all around and told them both how glad we were that they had come. But we weren’t exactly. Now is that hypocrisy or being polite? Our 12-year-old would call that blatant hypocrisy. I call it good manners.
So. Let’s address real hypocrisy. As Matthew tells this story, Jesus is speaking in the vicinity of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a short time after his triumphal entry into the city – perhaps a day or two. In this scene, Jesus is addressing his disciples and others who have gathered around him. In the preceding episode, Jesus had dealt a blow to the Pharisees who had sought to trap him in an argument. Having silenced them, he turns to the people and denounces Pharisaic [fair-uh-say-ick] practices as well as those of the scribes. The scribes and the Pharisees – these two groups may have overlapped to some degree, although the Pharisees tended to be lay people who, though regulated by strict religious rules, were not theologically trained. The scribes, who were lawyers trained in the law and its applications, were the professionals.
Specifically, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees for not acting according to their own teaching. The suggestion is that their teaching itself is fine, and not to be criticized. In fact, he says “do whatever they teach you and follow it” [23:2].
Theirs would be the classic instruction in the Jewish faith and worthy of adherence.
Sitting “on Moses’ seat” is Jesus’ way of saying that the scribes and Pharisees had the authority to teach and lead the faithful. But, as he goes on to suggest, they abused their power and went beyond their proper authority. They did so in several ways. First, they placed themselves above the adherence they taught others. Second, they applied the burdensome rules of priestly purity to all the people, making compliance unreasonable. And third, they exalted themselves by placing themselves in the spotlight and in places of importance. At banquets they loved to take their places at the head tables. In the synagogue, they sat in the best seats, the ones facing the congregation and reserved for people of honor.
Even the religious paraphernalia of the scribes and Pharisees drew attention to their roles. As you may already know, phylacteries were small boxes containing written portions of the Torah. Not just any old portions and not just any old little boxes. As prescribed in Deuteronomy 11:18, the words of God’s command and promise were to be bound upon the forehead and the arm as an outward sign of their being kept in the heart. The actual wearing of phylacteries was a visible signal of piety, and not necessarily a bad one. It merely indicated that the wearer was among the faithful of Israel. Likewise, the fringes on the prayer garments were prescribed by the Lord through Moses (Num 15:38) as a reminder of God’s commandments. To wear such symbols was fitting. But the subjects of Jesus’ criticism wore exaggerated costumes. Jesus is not abrogating (********WW – too fancy********) Mosaic tradition here; instead he is speaking against the showy display of piety.
REARRANGE OR CUT? The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses; seat. They have the knowledge. They can define God’s instruction, and it is right to act in accord with what they say. But role models they aren’t. The say, but don’t do. They impose obligations on others and evade them for themselves. They seek recognition and human approval in every act they undertake. They expect deference from those who meet them. They devise and value honorific titles. Among Jesus’ disciples, we learn, it must not be so.
Not that that doesn’t always work. St. Timothy’s in Salem, where my sister Kay worships, is the “highest” church I have ever attended (except for a couple of weddings I’ve gone to in a Greek Orthodox cathedral). I’ve gone often enough that I’m used to the incense and the bells and the elaborate vestments and so much ritual. At first I felt sort of put off by it all. But now I’m used to it. His sermons are thoughtful. Powerful in a “sneaks-up-on-you” kind of way, because he’s really a gentle soul and a gentle speaker. And at the altar much of the ritual is for himself, not for showing off, not for being seen by others, but simply for worshipping God.
And then there’s our own Bishop Greg – who showed up at a recent clergy day in shorts and a polo shirt. No ritualistic trappings there. Just comfortable, humble dress.
Speaking of humble. Of humility. Or lack thereof. It seems there was a priest when went to his church office one Monday morning and discovered a dead mule in the church yard. He called the chief of police. A Pharisee? He certainly was following the rules. Since there didn’t appear to be any foul play, the chief referred the priest to the health department. A Pharisee answered the phone and said that since there was no health threat, he should call the sanitation department. The manager of said department – equally Pharisaic -- said that he couldn’t pick up the mule without authorization from the mayor. Ah, the mayor. The priest knew the mayor and wasn’t eager to call him. The mayor not only had the Pharisees’ attitude toward nit-picking rules, but he had a bad temper and was generally hard to deal with. Nevertheless, the priest made the call.
The mayor ranted and raved at the priest, and finally, barely drawing a breath, said, “Why did you call me anyway? Isn’t it your job to bury the dead?” The way the story goes, the priest paused for a brief prayer and asked the Lord to direct his response. He was led to say “Yes, Mayor, it is my job to bury the dead. But I always like to notify the next of kin first.”
Bottom line (from William Barclay, in a work entitled The Gospel of Mathew) “The whole design of the Pharisees was to dress and act in such a way as to draw attention to themselves; the whole design of the Christian is to obliterate himself, so that if men see his good deeds, they may clarify not him, but his father in heaven. Any religion which begets ostentation in action and pride in the heart is a false religion.”