Ash Wednesday, 2008
Since coming to Trinity I have encountered a compelling definition of hypocrisy, which is the opposite of integrity. So, if as Cam has said to us from time to time, if integrity is the space between what you SAY you believe and what you actually DO decreasing, ever decreasing, then hypocrisy is that same space widening. It was a new definition for me, I’d never thought of it quite like that, but I like it.
Now – what we have from the Gospel Community of Matthew is a bit different. Hypocrisy here has little to do with matching up your STATED values with your ACTIONS. Here, hypocrisy isn’t the opposite of integrity, it’s the opposite of humility. Here we’re not comparing two people who proclaim, for instance, that their health is important to them, but only one of whom has made any sort of commitment to maintaining their health. No, what we have here in Matthew is the equivalent of two people who say their health is important, and who both fulfill their own commitments to maintain their health. They aren’t just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk. They’re putting their money where their mouths are! In our society, they’d BOTH be commended.
And yet, in Matthew we see two versions of how to be: one example is given of what people are actually doing, sounding trumpets in the temple before they give alms, disfiguring their faces if they’re fasting, praying loudly on the street corners, being seen to be doing what is right, and then the other example, which the Gospel Community of Matthew is encouraged to take up instead: give alms in secret, fast and look happy, pray on your own, and don’t make a spectacle of the fact that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. The first example of what not to do, that Matthew labels ‘hypocrisy’ doesn’t necessarily coincide with what we’ve heard of as hypocrisy.
But you know, I think to understand this, we need to take a wider view, because even with this different definition of hypocrisy, there is wisdom to be mined.
I propose that something bigger is going on in this little set of Gospel admonishons. I propose that they are set in the larger context of living in Community with one another. Now, I don’t mean to say that ancient Israel, or Roman Occupied Israel-Palestine, had cornered the market on being Community – we know that’s not so. But we do know that historically the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has been concerned with Community – and especially people on the margins of Community, making sure they don’t get forgotten. I think especially here of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – these were the main categories of people who were on the margins in Jewish society, and they were the very people who were provided for in the laws and in the religion. And so, the importance of preserving Community – the dignity of every member of the Community – was built into the very system of laws.
But then comes Jesus. Jesus, who never seemed to be content with those who follow the letter of the law, but who manage to violate the spirit of the law, who manage in this case to alienate others rather than be hospitable. Jesus, who had no patience for law abiding members of the Community who still managed to be consumed by their own arrogance at how well they fulfilled the letter of the law.
It’s a fine point of being in Community, literally of community life that Jesus and his followers under Matthew are criticizing here. It’s a finer point, perhaps, than we need to concern ourselves with, we who still struggle and need to justify the very taking care of those at the margins that Jesus took for granted. He took for granted that taking care of the marginalized was part of the law, was something that God demanded, so you did it, period the end. This, he took for granted, and this we cannot take for granted in our society, so perhaps the criticism that is leveled in these passages of Matthew were a finer point of community life than what we’re dealing with, so we can ignore them.
Or, perhaps not.
Because no matter what our laws say, or refuse to say about taking care of the marginalized, no matter how others who also worship God may approach the sacred texts we share in common, the sacred texts that we read one way to tell us this is important, the sacred texts that they read another way to say that other things are more important, no matter that our society, our community is not yet at that ideal place of institutionalized justice for all that we value so much in theory, no matter… if what Jesus was trying to say was be hospitable, rather than alienating when it comes not just to people you know and love, but everyone else around you, be hospitable rather than alienating… if what Jesus was trying to say was be humble, rather than arrogant, when it comes to the things God is not requesting, but requiring of you, be humble rather than arrogant… then perhaps this reading is incredibly relevant for us, today, here, right now.