Hypocrisy

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the world to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise designed for cadets at the Starfleet Academy. In the simulation, a disabled civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, is stranded near the Klingon neutral zone (Klingons are the bad guys in Star Trek). The cadet has to decide whether to rescue the ship and risk a confrontation with the Klingon Empire or respect the fragile peace between the Klingons and the Federation and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish in deep space. Now, for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the only really important thing to know is that the Kobayashi Maru is explicitly designed to be a no-win scenario; it’s meant to assess a cadet’s discipline and character when facing an impossible situation. There is, however, one cadet who successfully completed the Kobayashi Maru scenario. If you know anything about Star Trek, you won’t be surprised to discover that it was James T. Kirk, the maverick captain of the starship Enterprise and protagonist of the original series. He reprogrammed the computer so it would be possible to beat the simulation. Though he technically cheated, Kirk defended himself by claiming he didn’t believe in no-win situations.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also refuses to accept a no-win situation. The passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel has a deceptively straightforward quality, but there is great subtlety and depth in this interaction between Jesus and Pharisees. To begin with, the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor was far from a frivolous concern. In fact, this issue cut to the very heart of the religious and political assumptions of first-century Judaism. The religious authorities noted that paying taxes to the emperor violated at least two of the ten commandments: it not only required taxpayers to make use of a graven image, it also forced them to give homage to the emperor, who considered himself a god. Under the Law of Moses, in other words, paying taxes was tantamount to idolatry. Moreover, the Roman Empire was hated by the Jewish populace. Paying taxes was seen by some revolutionary zealots as a tacit endorsement of a brutal occupying power. At the same time, the only thing that prevented the Romans from bringing ruin down upon Jerusalem and the rest of Judea was the fact that the people paid the tribute required of them. The question that is brought to Jesus, in other words, was the Kobayashi Maru of first century Judaism: paying taxes represented a complicated ethical dilemma, one that could stymie even the sharpest intellect.

In response to this Gordian knot of religious and political nuance, Jesus does not offer a carefully worded opinion. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the question. He does this by saying that the Pharisees and their allies are hypocrites. This is not terribly surprising. Jesus calls people hypocrites a lot in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the word more than any of the other New Testament writers combined. Calling someone a hypocrite is a powerful indictment, in part because it entails minimal risk. Accusing someone of hypocrisy doesn’t require us to share their moral vision or even to have a particular moral vision. All it needs is a vague belief that people ought to act in accordance with their own stated moral principles. We can remove ourselves from the equation and claim that we are blameless, even as we accuse others of failing to live up to the values they champion.

Jesus turns the definition of hypocrisy on its head. For Jesus, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to our own moral standards; true hypocrisy is allowing ourselves to be defined by human standards in the first place. The reason that Jesus does not provide a carefully worded answer to the question of the religious authorities is that he completely rejects the terms of the debate. For him, asking if paying taxes to the emperor violated the Jewish Law ascribed to the emperor authority that properly belonged to God. Indeed, Jesus could have put his position in this way: “Caesar isn’t God; why are you treating him like he is? Why are you giving him power over you that he does not have?” The instruction to give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is actually a way of dismissing the emperor’s power altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, the emperor has mistakenly chosen to honor his own flawed humanity and earthly power. Jesus challenges us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. For Jesus, we are hypocrites when we forget who we are; when we fail to remember that, despite our flawed humanity, we bear the image of God, something no human being or earthly power can take away from us.

Last Sunday, the actress Alyssa Milano posted the following on social media: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Millions of people took this suggestion. It felt like every woman I knew posted #MeToo. Some shared wrenching stories of abuse, while others left the two words as a concise testament to the ways they had been made to feel worthless. The more #MeToos I read, the more I began to consider the ways I had been complicit in these stories of harassment and assault. To be honest, my initial, visceral reaction was to wonder how many of these were overreactions or misunderstandings. This response, however, represents the same hypocrisy displayed by the religious authorities in their interaction with Jesus: the hypocrisy of ascribing transcendent value to human standards: standards like “everybody does it” or “that’s just so and so being so and so.” Indeed, the whole #MeToo movement exposed our hypocritical failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Our faith calls us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor those who bear the image of God by acknowledging their pain and refusing to make excuses for those who have taken advantage of them. At the same time, honoring the image of God requires us to hope for the possibility of redemption: to acknowledge that through Jesus Christ, God has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. Our faith invites us to recognize that even when our sin or the sin of others prevents us from remembering it, we continue to bear the image of God. The ultimate message of the gospel is this: even when confronted with abusive forces that try to convince us that we are worthless, we must not forget who we are and whose we are.

Advertisements

Reimagining our Roles

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Fifty five years ago this week, one of the great careers in major league baseball came to a memorable and poetic conclusion. On a damp and chilly day in Boston, the Red Sox were playing their final home game of the season. There would no October baseball in Boston that year; the Red Sox were the worst they had been in 27 seasons. Nevertheless, the Fenway crowd was electric as Boston’s 42 year old left fielder came to the plate in the eighth inning. In his long career with the Red Sox, Ted Williams had been one of the most enigmatic players in all of baseball. He was unquestionably a transcendent talent: he still holds the record for highest single season batting average. Yet, there was always a simmering resentment among the Fenway faithful when it came to their impressive left fielder. Williams never led his perennially frustrated team to a World Series victory. He was injury prone and plagued by a host of personal and family issues. He craved solitude and, as a result, expressed no interest in cultivating a relationship with press or the fans. But perhaps most galling to fans and baseball purists was his failure to honor the timeless baseball convention of tipping one’s cap to acknowledge the accolades of the crowd.

But none of that seemed to matter on that autumn day in 1960. When Ted emerged from the on deck circle for his final plate appearance at Fenway, the crowd stood and applauded in unison. This was not the primal, indistinct roar of a typical stadium crowd; it was, in the words of John Updike, a “somber and considered tumult.” Indeed, the ovation seemed to represent an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past, a collective desire to create a redemptive moment. On the third pitch of the at bat, Teddy Ballgame swung mightily and crushed the baseball into the Red Sox bullpen. ted-williamsx-largeThough it was his last major league home run, Williams rounded the bases as he always did: hurriedly, head down, like a commuter dashing through a sudden downpour. And in spite of the cheering crowd, the pleas of his teammates, and the even entreaties of the other team, Ted steadfastly refused to tip his cap. Many sportswriters complained that this was emblematic of the legend’s arrogance and contempt for the fans. Updike put it more poetically:“Gods do not answer letters.” But I wonder if Williams’ refusal to end his career by tipping his cap stemmed from a fundamental conviction that his relationship with Boston could not be changed in a single cathartic moment, that his purpose was not to play a mere role in the great narrative of baseball, that no matter how we may want our stories to play out, the people at the heart of them are more important.

In the passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus is once again squaring off against the Pharisees. And once again, the subject of their dispute is the nature of God’s Law. As always, the Pharisees approach Jesus with a fairly straightforward question designed to test his familiarity with the Law in order to examine his claims of rabbinical authority. So, when Jesus responds by asking, “What did Moses command you?” the Pharisees must think they’ve finally won: “Some rabbi he is!” they might have thought. “He doesn’t even know the rule about divorce!” You can almost hear their smugness as they refer their opponent to Deuteronomy 24: “Well Jesus…Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her; surely everyone knows that.” But Jesus, who is playing a very different game than the Pharisees, accuses them of being hard-hearted, an epithet that recalls Pharaoh’s steadfast refusal to let God’s people go in the story of the Exodus. In other words, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to think beyond what they believe the Law says and consider instead the ways it affects God’s people.

If we look at the portion of Deuteronomy the Pharisees refer to, it’s pretty clear that they are missing the point. The passage describes a hypothetical situation in which a man divorces his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce, putting it in her hand, and sending her out of his house. It goes on to explain that if she marries another and loses that husband through death or divorce, her first husband “is not permitted to take her again to be his wife…for that would be abhorrent to the Lord.” While this language doesn’t exactly empower women, its purpose is not to explain how a man goes about divorcing his wife. Rather, it articulates that a woman is not subject to the arbitrary whims of her first husband, that she cannot be treated as a commodity, that she has intrinsic value. The religious authorities, however, were reading this text not as an affirmation of human dignity, but as a prescription: “how to divorce your wife in three easy steps.” The Pharisees believed that if their wives did not fit neatly into their life plan for whatever reason, they could be removed from the equation with no more than a the stroke of a pen. They were so concerned with maintaining absolute control that they were willing to disregard the humanity of their wives. Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a surprising way. He doesn’t suggest that his opponents misunderstood the Law; he doesn’t even offer his own unique interpretation of the Law. imgresInstead, Jesus takes us back to the Garden of Eden, back before there was a Law, back to the moment when humanity came into being. He does this to remind his audience that we are all created by God. With this reminder, Jesus affirms that no one is disposable, that everyone has value, that no one’s purpose in this life is merely to play a role in someone else’s story. Jesus, in other words, frames the issue of divorce not in terms of whether it’s allowed or not, but rather in terms of how it affects the people involved.

It’s important for us to recognize that Jesus is not simply replacing one rule with another. By framing divorce within the context of creation, Jesus invites us to think about the issue, as he invites us to think about everything, in terms of what God has done and is doing rather than how we behave. At the same time, we can say with confidence that God is not in favor of divorce, not because it violates some abstract rule, but because of what it does to God’s people. Those of you who have experienced divorce know how painful it is, how dehumanizing it can feel, how it can eat you alive. But even in the midst of that pain, we are called to remember that we are created by God. Even as we bear witness to the migrant crisis in Europe, we are called to remember that those escaping from conflict are not statistics, they are people created by God. Even as we express our grief and outrage over the massacre in Oregon, we are called to remember the God-given humanity of everyone involved: the victims, the survivors, even the shooter. So often the sheer magnitude of the issues facing our broken world leads us to forget about the people at the heart of those stories of anguish and hope. Jesus calls us to remember their humanity, to remember that each and every one of them, and each and every one of us, was created and is beloved by God.

Categories

If you were to do Gospel of John Mad Libs, you might end up with the passage we read in church this morning.  John 9 has a little bit of everything: the healing of a blind man, disputes with the Pharisees, controversies around the Sabbath, and the inability of two groups of people to understand what the other is saying.  The chapter is essentially a list of John the Evangelist’s greatest hits.  In spite of this implicit richness, there are many who are inclined to read this as a simple story of a miraculous healing: Jesus makes mud, spreads it on some guy’s eyes, and he is able to see, even though he was born blind.  This is understandable in some ways.  After all, the man’s story about what happened to him is pretty simple: “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  He repeats a version of this several times throughout the passage, always with the same dry rehearsal of the facts.

imgresI think the reason for the man’s repetition, however, is not that this is a simple story, but because the dry rehearsal of the facts exposes the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities.  Notice that at the beginning of this passage, the disciples wonder aloud who was responsible for the man’s blindness.  John includes this detail in part to illustrate how the religious authorities of the day viewed the world.  For them, physical capacity was automatically associated with how sinful or righteous you were.  If you were strong and healthy, the likelihood was that you were righteous.  If you were physically infirm, the likelihood was that you or someone close to you was sinful.  This distinction led the religious authorities to make determinations about who was “in” or “out” based on their understanding of people’s relative righteousness or sinfulness.  John also argues that this led the religious authorities to look at everyone in terms of these categories of “righteous” or “sinful,” in terms of whether they were “in” or “out.”

This is ultimately the source of the misunderstanding between the man born blind and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees looked at a man who had been blind from birth, a man firmly in the “sinful” category, and saw that he was no longer blind, that he could no longer easily be considered “sinful.”  Instead of reevaluating their categories, the Pharisees try to prove that there’s no way the man could have actually been healed from his blindness.  It’s almost hilarious: they assume that the guy is impersonating the real blind beggar, they ask his parents to explain what’s going on, they repeatedly tell the man that he was born in sin.  In the meantime, the man repeats over and over, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The Pharisees refuse to recognize that the man has been healed, because in their worldview, people born in sin do not change, and are certainly not changed by people who don’t observe the Sabbath.  The Pharisees refuse to change the way they look at the world.  They refuse to see beyond their limited categories of “sinful” and “righteous,” and so they fail to recognize the truth when it stares them directly in the face.

While the Pharisees are clearly in the wrong in this passage, I suspect that more than a few of us have shared a worldview with the religious authorities of John’s gospel at some point in our lives.  We like to put things in categories, to keep things organized.  When we are organizing our closets, this is not a bad thing.  But this is a dangerous habit to indulge when we are talking about other human beings.  When we look at a person and make a determination about who he is based on how he looks, we are falling into the same trap as the Pharisees.  When we think we know a person just because we know where she’s from, we are failing to recognize the truth.  God calls us to look beyond our limited worldviews and appreciate the people of this world for who they are and who they can be, instead of who we think they ought to be.