Hillary Bergman Cheek
September 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
It was the summer before my final year of high school; I was surrounded by friends from my youth group, the soft glow of the lanterns floating above us created a feeling of warmth and comfort as a light summer rain softly tapped on the windows that surrounded us. We had just finished affirming our faith together, and the musician could be seen carefully dropping his guitar strap over one shoulder as he stepped toward his microphone. He began strumming a tune familiar to many in the crowd. Sounds of approval rippled through the auditorium.
Lyrics were projected on the screen, but I and many others didn’t bother looking in that direction. We didn’t need to, we knew them by heart, we had sung them many times before, we were insiders. I imagine there was also some sense of pride that came with such knowledge. Some understanding that anyone glancing in my direction would recognize that I belonged.
As the first notes left the musicians mouth, a second ripple, this one composed of confused groans and disapproving sighs competed with the sounds of worshipful music.
These weren’t the lyrics I remembered; words had been replaced, some were in a different language. This wasn’t the same song that I had associated with the great memories from years past. Memories of feeling renewed, feeling close to God, feeling inspired to live a life that reflected the gospel. I was upset; I felt deflated, I pouted. I sought out the looks on faces around me that signaled I wasn’t alone.
It wasn’t until later that I realized in the midst of that self-righteous anger, I was behaving like a hypocrite. I missed the point.
The lyrics, though different, were still worshipful and, even including a greater variety of perspectives. However, to me, that wasn’t important. I confused worship of self with the worship of God, and I saw how easily the two are confused.
We all probably have similar stories of times we’ve missed the point.
I think it often happens, even, or perhaps especially, in the church. Faith, experiences, and human inventions become so tangled that we have trouble undoing the knots and carefully untwisting them all in order to discern the differences.
Traditions are important. They give us a sense of security, a sense of belonging. They connect us to people, to a community, to memories. Some bring us closer to God and help us to better honor our neighbor. However, they are dangerous when they get so caught in the web of our life of faith that we treat those human inventions with as much commitment as the faith we hope to have.
Thinking of our own experiences might help us to better understand the perspective of the Pharisees and scribes in this story. We do ourselves a disservice when we assume that they were only out for self-gain, that they had no regard for God and great regard for themselves. Though they entered this scene drenched in righteousness, they had dedicated their lives to religious teaching, to honoring God, and to ensuring that others honor God as well. They may have believed that putting such restrictions and rituals in place would help to protect the community from outside forces that would dishonor God, people that would somehow water down the religion with their disregard for the history and rituals behind it. So perhaps we can imagine the possibility that when they call out to Jesus, it is not completely rooted in malintent.
Hypocrisy is tricky. It doesn’t merely entail deceiving others, but most often also entails deceiving oneself. Loye Bradley Ashton writes of hypocrisy, “it’s a denial of our authentic self in favor of the fabricated persona we wish to be.” [i]
Part of the trouble with this tradition they passionately defend as a mark of faithfulness is that it was fairly new and not widely practiced. There were many conflicting ideas about who must follow this rule and when. We don’t even see a written prescription of this practice for priests, until around 100 CE.
When these leaders use this tradition to criticize Jesus and his disciples publicly, it is not surprising that Jesus points to the traditions, one particularly outlined in the commands given to Moses, that they are sidestepping. They’re going to great length to construct justifications for not honoring parents, while also creating more manageable prescriptions, ones requiring much less introspection and self-reflection, with which to test and judge the piety of others.
Jesus doesn’t just call them hypocrites; he uses the words of Isaiah to do so.
In a recent study, researchers at Yale sought to determine why people view hypocrites so negatively. They contend that “the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication — not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.”
They provide this example:
“Imagine you have a co-worker who is something of an environmental activist. He hounds people to turn off their office lights when they step out for lunch and gets on their case if they throw recyclables in the trash.
He protests when people print documents single-sided instead of double-sided.
While he is overbearing at times, you agree with everything he advocates.
Now imagine you discover that your co-worker, when at home, regularly fails to do any of these things.
He is a hypocrite.
You promptly revoke the moral credit you gave him for his activism. In fact, his hypocrisy now makes his activism seem not just not-positive, but negative…[T]he principal offense of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he himself behaves morally.”
They found that people tend to view “moral condemnation not as a tool for reproaching others but as a way to boost your own reputation.”
In another set of studies, researchers “found that people viewed hypocrites as dishonest — more dishonest, in fact, than people who uttered outright falsehoods…
To further test [their] theory, [they] asked people to judge those who hypocritically condemn behaviors they engage in, but who explicitly avoid implying anything virtuous about their personal behavior — by saying, for instance, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway.”
They found that people judged this group of hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites. People even let this particular group of hypocrites “entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behavior but did not condemn others for it.”[ii]
So perhaps we can see why people are turned off when religious leaders and institutions fail to admit failures and shortcomings. We fall into the trap of focusing so much on proclaiming what we believe that we give little attention to admitting the ways we strive but fall short of living lives that align with those beliefs.
That wasn’t what Jesus wanted for the scribes and the Pharisees.
That isn’t what he wants for us.
Avoiding hypocrisy requires honesty, vulnerability, and a constant reassessment of the relationship between our words, actions, and values.
Jesus painted a picture of what it means to honor God and showed that the point of the Law he came to fulfill was not to make one feel small, but to foster a beloved community. That is the heart of the Commandments. In distancing ourselves from one another, we distance ourselves from God.
We see this desire in the list of vices Jesus gives to his disciples. Dr. Clifton Black contends “All these vices refer to self-absorbed conduct that violates the social contract. Collectively, they are aligned with a corrupted religiosity that so abhors the common, the koinos, that community, koinonia, is perversely raptured”. [iii]
Jesus fulfilled the Law in part by living a life that embodied the heart of the Law. He lived a life that fostered community, brought healing, brought forgiveness, inspired trust, and was defined by love. Those are characteristics of a life that brings honor to God. That is the heart of the Gospel. As Christians, we strive to live with integrity and with hearts that reflect the heart of that Gospel. We strive to act in ways that foster community, bring healing, bring forgiveness, inspire trust, and are defined by love.
Such living requires hard work that Jesus challenges his followers to do.
He challenges us to seek out the parts of ourselves that are sometimes painful to find, to admit our failures, and to reconcile our actions with the faith we profess. Such work is necessary for nurturing a beloved community.
In such a community, the burden of pain is shared, we come as we are, we recognize our past failures without fear of judgment, our sense of purpose is renewed, and celebrations are sweeter because they are shared. In such a community, we come to the table not because of our piety, but because we recognize our own brokenness. In sharing in the joyful feast, we realize just how much we need God and just how much we need one another.
Jesus challenged both the disciples and the Pharisees to have hearts that reflect the heart of the gospel.
Those are the kind of hearts that the world so desperately needs.
Jesus challenges us too.
[i] Loye Bradley Ashton, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4:Season after Pentecost 2, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 22.
[ii] Jillian Jordan, Roseanna Sommers and David Rand, “The Real Problem With Hypocrisy,” New York Times, January 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/opinion/sunday/the-real-problem-with-hypocrisy.html, accessed August 28, 2018.
[iii] Clifton Black, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Mark, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2011, 175.