Jesus rebukes the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23 – our Scripture reading for today. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” That was Jesus’ refrain as he denounced them. Over and over he said it. He called them hypocrites.
This is not the warm, fuzzy Jesus of our childhoods. This is the Jesus who cares about purity.
As I prayed through this passage, that’s the word that came to mind, that floated to the top – purity. If I am a hypocrite, I confess to believe in some moral standard while actually living out some other standard. I don’t practice what I preach, as they say. If I am a hypocrite, I may claim adultery is wrong while I go about cheating on my wife. Or I might claim that living for Christ is central to my life while ignoring Jesus’ commandments when it is convenient for me.
And Jesus doesn’t like hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites. The lasting image there, for me, is that of “whitewashed tombs.” A nice, clean, shiny tomb. I picture one of those tombs in a majestic cathedral. It looks good. Impressive. But open it up. See what’s inside. Rot and the stink of death.
And Jesus doesn’t like hypocrisy. Stanley Hauerwas writes, “From the beginning Jesus has told his followers that what they teach and who they are cannot be separated. He is the sworn enemy of hypocrisy. We should be what we appear to be.”
Jesus, the “sworn enemy of hypocrisy,” must care then about purity. We know that is true after reading the Sermon on the Mount. Our actions are important, surely. But the heart behind the actions matter. Jesus wants us to be pure. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
So the question for me today is whether I am pure in heart – or whether I am a hypocrite. It’s a sobering question. Do I know that Jesus knows my moments of hypocrisy?
There’s a well-known resurrection hymn called “He Lives.” The chorus goes like this:
He lives He lives
Christ Jesus lives today
He walks with me and talks with me
Along life’s narrow way
He lives He lives
Salvation to impart
You ask me how I know He lives
He lives within my heart
That tune has been in my head for the past couple of days as Easter approaches. We would sing that at our church in Kentucky, at sunrise on top of a natural stone “bridge” in the Appalachian mountains. “He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.”
What might Jesus be saying to me, as we walk and talk, about purity? What would he say about appearances? What would he say about hypocrisy? If there’s one promise in Matthew 23, it is that hypocrites will be judged. Purity of heart and mind matters to God.
In some ways, Matthew 23 also pushes me toward honesty. The notions of hypocrisy and purity should push us in the direction of honesty. There’s something deceitful about saying one thing but not really meaning it (and perhaps quietly doing another). Honesty and transparency, I suppose, are important to God, too. Take the lid off the tomb and see what’s really inside. Take a look inside that cup that’s clean on the outside and see if there is any filth on the inside.
All of this has application for our lives within the church. Are our hearts really for God? Are we really chasing after Jesus with everything we have? Most of us would say “yes.” But is that really true? And if it’s not, can I just go ahead and admit that – “Yes, I am struggling with my lack of passion for following Jesus right now. Or, yes, I’ve got some dark spots that I’m dealing with right now, some moments of desolation that I don’t really know what to do with?” Can we be that honest with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Or would we rather keep up the appearance that all is well?
A hypocrite is a person who says one thing and does another. The purity isn’t there. And there’s some measure of deceit involved.
Of course, we’re all like this. And we can thank Jesus who comes to us in our hypocrisy and offers us good news – “salvation to impart.” He even told the scribes and Pharisees – “hypocrites!” – that he would send to them “prophets and wise men and scribes.” I think of Peter and John and Paul, preaching the gospel to them.
There is salvation even for us hypocrites, if we will drop the appearances and come to Christ. We show him our box of rotting bones and flesh. We confess our helplessness. And he promises to make us whole.