A Bit of Background
Today’s Gospel reading is difficult to grasp as it deals with aspects of religious practice that we, as Christians, don’t follow and so find hard to understand. We don’t have the concept of physical holiness that Jewish people do, and particularly as they did in Biblical times.
The Old Testament contains many laws concerning ritual purity or ritual holiness. One had to behave in certain ways in order to be holy, to be clean and able to worship God. We see aspects of this in Islam where, before prayer, one must wash hands, arms, feet, ankles and mouth. § In Christianity we don’t undertake ritual washing before prayer – the nearest we have to it is to bless oneself with holy water when going into a Catholic Church. A constant refrain in the Book of Leviticus where much of the Jewish Law is written is “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Holiness was understood to be a moral thing outworked in physical actions.
Today’s passage starts with criticism from the Pharisees about how Jesus’ disciples were eating without washing their hands in a ritual way. There is no Jewish law insisting that hands were ritually washed before eating but there is a requirement that priests ritually wash before ministering at the altar. The Pharisees took seriously a line from Exodus where God tells the Jewish people that they are to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation. They argued that all Jews should be as holy as the priests and, therefore, all should ritually wash before eating.
This type of reasoning was about trying to help people understand the closeness of God and the obligations people have to worship and honour God in daily life. It wasn’t a bad thing, but it did raise into rules that which wasn’t in the Law.
The author of the Gospel exaggerates when he says that all Jews followed this – Jesus wouldn’t have been alone in rejecting this teaching but he was, however, clearly prominent and so the Pharisees would have wanted to counter his example.
So What’s Going On?
At first glance we see Jesus trying to move people away from punctilious observance of laws and move them towards more living better ethics. The passage is critical of those religious types who use their faith to absolve them from any compulsion to live compassionately. The example in the passage of people dedicating their goods to God – but still holding on to them – as a way out of looking after aged parents is a good example of faith being used to avoid our ethical duties.
It’s an easy thing for religious people to do. In one of his films Sacha Baron Cohen poses as a Romanian and sleeps on the steps of a mega church in America one Sunday morning. People step around him and over him rather than see if they can help. Now the stunt may have been staged but it’s uncomfortable watching. The hit TV series Desperate Housewives had a scene where a teenager is practising a song she would be singing solo in her church. Her mum is being encouraging as the daughter can’t get the song right and says, “don’t worry, it’s the Church, they’re good folk, they won’t mind if you get it wrong.” Her neighbour, Edie is a woman with a reputation and remarks – “it’s church kid, get it right or be prepared for trouble.” It’s uncomfortable humour. We all know of people who are self-righteous, who use religion to hide their judgmentalism – and the abuse scandals make us realise that outward sanctity may not be indicative of being close to God.
When we live in ways which don’t betray the values we say we believe in we’re hypocrites. We’re quick to condemn politicians who do this – the furore this week over the allegations against Mr Salmond have been shocking and, if proved, will trash his reputation. Love him or loathe him he has been a very successful politician who took his party from obscurity to being the majority party in Scotland and who came within a whisker or winning a referendum people thought would never happen. He’s fighting for his political life now as his reputation is on the line and people will call him a hypocrite if the allegations are proved. Over the last month a Catholic Archbishop has been convicted of covering up abuse and made to resign his ministry; the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington has been made to resign from the College of Cardinals as it emerged he’d been abusing men and boys for years.
Happily we don’t live in the spotlight that Mr Salmond and other political leaders do. I wonder how our lives would stack up if the press were doing some digging. How many of us wouldn’t be pulled up short if challenged about whether the way we live meets the values we say we live by. It’s much easier to look pious than to live authentically – the point Jesus was making.
Living by our Values
I think there are at least three ways we can avoid the trap of hypocrisy.
First, don’t judge but seek to understand. It’s easy to judge – I’m get very angry when I read of bishops, archbishops and cardinals who have behaved disgracefully. It’s hard to understand a mindset that protects the institution rather than the vulnerable. However, I realise how easy it is to get pulled into that, to not want to expose a church one loves to outside scrutiny, to convince oneself that it’s better to deal with things quietly, that we want to avoid hurt to good people. It’s very easy to get pulled in. Understanding doesn’t meet agreeing but can stem our temptation to judge.
Second, remember that there but by the grace of God we go. We read of scandal, hypocrisy and feel outraged but forget that it would be very easy for us to be caught out. People were telling Ian this week in the café how much better things are now sectarianism isn’t so much of an issue in Scottish life but it wasn’t that long ago that it was, that questions about schooling were really questions about religion and how folk could jump to conclusions. It’s not that long ago when people who had kids out of wedlock were shamed in our society. We’re all tempted to have a nice juicy gossip but hate it if we’re the subject of the gossip. Different life choices, different circumstances could mean any of us could easily have been undone as so many of the powerful are. The difference is our undoing isn’t in the public gaze. Remembering that keeps us humble.
Finally, we need to practice what we preach. People may be turned off by the Church but aren’t turned off by Jesus. I was doing some research for the films we’re having over the next four weeks and heard someone say on the radio that the original idea behind Life of Brian was to mock Jesus but after the writing team read the Gospels they found they couldn’t – instead they mocked religion and treated the figure of Jesus in the film – he has a very marginal part in some ways – very respectfully. People are turned off by the Church because we don’t practice what we preach. I had a lot of respect for Cardinal Winning who, a few years ago now, made money and resources available to women who felt they had no alternative but to have an abortion. The media elite were scandalised and felt he was paying women to make a certain choice. I felt, however, instead of condemning abortion he was putting his money where his mouth was so that women felt they had more of a choice. In our everyday lives we need to make sure what we say we believe, we actually live – it’s a huge challenge!
Years ago, Jesus condemned the religious for their hypocrisy. We can avoid the traps of religion by refusing to judge, remaining humble and practicing what we preach.
Will you pray with me?
in Jesus Christ you have shown us the truth of your commandments.
Give us sincere hearts
that we may serve you with joy,
obey you with love,
and manifest your wisdom to the world,