By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
August 30, 2009
Read: Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 and James 1:17-27
So, this morning we hear Jesus calling the Pharisees and the scribes hypocrites. The word hypocrite originally comes from ancient Greek theatre. It meant to act a part in a play, to pretend, to display a mask. A good definition of a hypocrite is a person who is not, on the inside, what he or she is showing on the outside. In other words the person is incongruent. There’s a noticeable inconsistency between what’s on the inside and what people see on the outside. Jesus is calling the Pharisees and the scribes hypocrites. It seems a bit harsh, because they were serious about keeping or upholding the law. And it was God’s law – written in Leviticus. The point of being a Pharisee was to be faithful, as faithful as possible to the law of Moses. That wasn’t a bad goal; it was a good one. So what’s up with Jesus? What is he saying?
Perhaps Jesus is saying that faith begins to die when it becomes nothing more than a set of rules. A faith that focuses only on rules gets in the way of the relationship that the rules were designed to protect; we can’t hear God speaking to us in the present, because we are so absorbed in our efforts to embody perfectly what God has said to us in the past.
Jesus goes on to say that it is the “inside” of us that matters. That what comes from within us is the real problem, or perhaps is the real solution. To be congruent, or authentic, is what is important to living a life of faith, to being in relationship with others, to being in community. Mother Teresa has said that if you judge people, you have no time to love them. And there is that wisdom about point a finger at our brother or sister. When you point that finger, there are three others pointing right back you. Jesus is calling us all to self-reflection, self-observation. Jesus is calling us to be exactly who we are at this point in time. It is recognizing and accepting who we are as a human being that is the beginning of true life.
So let’s go back to that definition of hypocrisy – presenting ourselves one way to the rest of the world, while covering up who we really are and what is really going on in our life.
Suze Orman, financial planner and author of “The Courage to be Rich”, tells of her successful career that went through a period when it was unsuccessful. During that time she struggled to save face, to maintain an image of success. She continued to entertain her friends at fine restaurants, and to drive her luxury car to keep up the image of a successful professional. The truth was that every dinner, every car payment, every tank of gas was taking her deeper into debt. When she developed the courage to talk about the harm that trying to maintain an image caused, she began to truly help other people and create success for herself and others.
And another, older example….On one occasion Stephen Douglas sneeringly referred to the fact that he once saw Abraham Lincoln retailing whiskey. “Yes,” replied Lincoln, “it is true that the first time I saw Judge Douglas I was selling whiskey by the drink. I was on the inside of the bar, and the judge was on the outside; I busy selling, he busy buying.”
The story is told of an old man who said, “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I found I could not do that, so I tried to change my community. I found I could not do that, so I tried to change my family. I found I could not do that, so I decided to let God change me.” The strange thing is, God did change that man, and as a result, the world was changed. It became a better place.
Jesus is offering us a deeper relationship with him. Jesus wants us to be who God created us to be. Jesus is changing hearts today, at the price of his cross. He waits for us there.
A young rabbi went to serve his first synagogue, and he noticed that on the first Sabbath, when he said the prayers, the congregation on the left side of the synagogue stood at the beginning of the prayers, and the congregation on the right side remained seated. The young rabbi thought this was a little odd, but continued to say the prayers. After the first couple of petitions, he noticed a murmuring, which intensified as he continued the prayers. Finally, it got loud enough that he was able to make out some of the words.
The murmuring in the congregation was a disagreement between the two halves of the congregation; the left half was saying that in this synagogue the tradition was that the congregation stood during the prayers, and the right half was saying that in this congregation the tradition was that they sat during the prayers.
As the prayers continued, the voices got louder, until finally the rabbi stopped because he was sure that God was the only one who could hear him anymore.
Hoping that this event was due to having a new rabbi (and attempting to influence him), the young rabbi did not discuss it with anyone, but the next Sabbath, it happened again. The argument once again got so loud that the young rabbi stopped before he had finished his prayers – people were actually yelling at each other. The tone had gotten rancorous, and each side of the congregation started to engage in accusations of heresy and other name-calling.
The young rabbi looked up the elderly rabbi who had served this congregation for years, and told him what was going on. The question he asked at the end of his story was, “So is it the tradition of the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
The older rabbi stroked his beard and replied, “No, that has never been the tradition of that congregation.”
“So the tradition is that they remain sitting during the prayers?”
The older rabbi looked off into the distance, as if remembering the good years serving God as a rabbi and said, “No, that was never the tradition of that congregation either.”
The young rabbi threw his hands in the air in exasperation, and said, “There must be some solution to this! The way things are now, they just end up screaming at each other during the prayers.”
The old rabbi’s face lit up in a smile as he lifted an admonishing finger to the sky and said, “Yes! That was our tradition!”
God is more concerned with who we are on the inside than the outward ceremonies we observe. You can pray standing up or you can pray sitting down and still never really pray. You can wash your hands a thousand times and still have sin in your heart. You can sing every song in any hymnal and still not know God. You can worship on red carpet all your life and never really experience holy ground. It’s not the outward form of the tradition that matters; it’s what lies in our hearts that counts. It’s the Why are you doing it question. The Bible tells us that God’s concern is with the inward self, not the outward appearance. If you look up the word “heart” in a concordance, you’ll find passages like these: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” “He knows the secrets of our hearts.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” And so on.
God wants to do a new thing today, and we need to be open to it. What worked yesterday may not have power for today. We live in a new day with new challenges, and we need to hear the word of the Lord for today. Let’s be open to the newness of God’s mercy, grace, love.
Paul said in Philippians 3:13, “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Let’s be open for God to do a new thing in our lives. Amen.
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