Sunday, August 26, 2007
"You hypocrites!" (Luke 13:10-17)
A sermon for XIII Pentecost
August 25, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
This is the second time in as many Sundays that Jesus uses the word, “Hypocrite.”
Maybe it was just the effect of the summer’s heat this week, but I found that fact curious if not, at least, mildly interesting.
My old seminary copy of Strong’s biblical concordance reports that the word hypocrite or hypocrisy is used less than a handful of times in Hebrew scripture, but Jesus employs its use with great frequency.
Indeed, “hypocrite” is used three times in Luke, once in Mark, and no less than 13 times in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus often has harsh words for his disciples, but he saves the application of that particular word for leaders of the synagogue – specifically, the Pharisees and Scribes.
So, I decided to look it up in Webster’s.
(Before I report on my findings, allow me to seize the opportunity to make a shameless pitch for someone to donate a copy of the OED – the Old English Dictionary – to the church library. I used to use the one at the Convent of St. Helena where I take my monthly retreat, but the convent is closed in the summer. I often use the OED at the Chatham Public Library, but between vacation and these hot, muggy days of summer, I have not had the incentive to get my sorry self over there. It would be great to have our very own edition here, available whenever the Spirit moves. End of shameless pitch.)
Webster reports that the word hypocrite is derived from the Greek hypodrites meaning “a stage actor”; hence, the definition: “one who pretends to have moral and religious beliefs and principles he does not profess; one who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude.”
I don’t know about you, but I find myself in a smug state of satisfaction, listening to Jesus berate the religious leaders of his day as hypocrites. I mean, really!
They have so much in common with the hypocrites of our modern day – like some of those televangelists who hold themselves morally superior, harshly judging everyone else’s behavior until (some would say, eventually), like Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart, it is reported that they are having an affair with a church secretary or employing the services of a prostitute.
Or, there’s David Vitters, the Senator from Louisiana, ardent spokesman for Christian ‘family values’ and outspoken opponent of reproductive rights and same sex marriage, whose name just happened to appear on the call list of the D.C. Madam. Oops!
Don’t even get me started on the “Fundgelicals” in our own Anglican / Episcopal church.
Jesus is calling these guys for what they are: actors – shamelessly feigning some desirable or publicly approved attitude. Two-bit actors, fallen from the high stage of religious drama.
Except, what I have learned about myself over the years is this: smugness is a red flag on the playing field of my soul. The very minute I begin to feel smug, my soul is sending up a danger sign that I need to explore a bit more fully. As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s is the parts that I do understand.”
So, I ventured forth to wade more deeply into the gospel story and here’s what I found: Surprise! I discovered the place of my own hypocrisy! Come with me and see if you don’t find a wee bit of your own.
We all have this place within us, I’m convinced. It’s just that we don’t like to look into the dark corners of our own soul. It’s ever so much more fun to look at the flaws of others.
Jesus has just healed a woman whose back has been so bent over, she has been crippled for 18 years. I’m thinking it was probably scoliosis, a condition we now easily diagnosed in elementary school. Or, perhaps, it was the effects of osteoporosis. OA slipped disc, perhaps. No matter. None of these conditions were known or diagnosable, much less treatable, in antiquity.
Jesus sees her and, moved with compassion, calls her over, lays hands on her, and heals her. Just like that. He didn’t ask her if she wanted to be healed. Neither did he check the calendar to see what day it was. He was simply moved with compassion and healed her.
This angered the religious leaders because it was the Sabbath and, according to temple law and tradition, nothing – not even healing – was to happen on the Sabbath. “You hypocrites,” Jesus yells at them! Good grief, he says. You give common beasts of burden like the donkey and oxen their freedom to get water on the Sabbath, and would you not free this woman from the bondage of her condition because it is the Sabbath?
Jesus is calling the religious leaders on keeping the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. Now, none of us would know anything about that, would we? Would we? Who among us might break the WORD of the law in order to be faithful to the SPIRIT of the law? Okay, I’ll go first. It’s probably because I’m a ‘religious leader’ of our day, but I confess that I am as guilty as the religious leaders of antiquity – especially about the Sabbath.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good about a disciplined prayer life on vacation. I even go to church when I’m on vacation. Indeed, it’s my very favorite time of all to go to church. It’s easy to find the time for prayer when I’m observing the Sabbath. It’s not so easy when I’m busy – when my schedule is frenetically filled with appointments and projects and visits.
The rich irony, which has not been at all lost on me, is that this is precisely what the Sabbath is designed for – not for the luxury of vacation, but to take time apart and away from the business and frenzy of life and clear the deck of any extraneous, unnecessary activity. To bring the focus back to the center. To reconnect with our Spirit. To be in communication with God.
It’s easy to be smug and criticize the Pharisees of religious myopia and hypocrisy, but that smugness is always a signal that something in my soul recognizes it only because the possibility exists in me. To my chagrin, more often than not, I don’t have to look too far to find it.
As we begin to count down the last two weekends of summer – this one and then, next week, Labor Day, the “official end” of the summer season – I wonder how you will plan to observe the Sabbath in your life once life returns to. . . . “normal”?
How will you balance the demands of the fall season – the return to school, football games and soccer practice, music lessons, etc. – with the need to stay spiritually centered and grounded? In your need to be connected to your Spirit, and be in communication with God?
More to the point, this morning’s gospel asks us to look at what it is we say we believe, and how we put those beliefs into action in our lives. This morning’s gospel asks us if we are willing to break the WORD of the law in order to be faithful to the SPIRIT of the law.
Actions still speak louder than words. The net worth of the picture of our lives still remains at a million words. On the stage of your life, are you acting from a place of truth in you, or in a way that you only want others to believe?
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” My gospel prayer today is that, by the true observation of the Sabbath, the tree of your life may reveal the true nature of your character. May these last few days of summer lead you out from the shadows to brightness of that truth.