Posts Tagged ‘hypocrisy’

JAMES 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

According to the Genesis myth of creation it was the word of God – “Let there be!” – that brought forth light, matter, and the myriad creatures. Rather than reading this story literally we can interpret it as “an ode to the word,” capturing in a narrative portrait the profound power in speech for bringing forth worlds – or destroying them, as the case may be.

As creaturely reflections of God, human beings have the creative capacity in language to call intelligent order from the sensory chaos of experience. And as the agency of communication, the word carries into audible and textual signs the otherwise hidden intentions of our minds and hearts.

Seeing as how much of human culture is really the technical transformation of material energy into structures of meaning, and how totally meaning is a product of language, and finally how much of language is about words and the relationships among words, we begin to appreciate the real insight in what may have seemed like exaggerated warnings in the Letter of James regarding the tongue and its power.

The greatest of human capacities – to create and live within word-worlds of meaning – can be turned in either a godly or demonic direction. It can name and tame the beasts of the wilds, and it can curse, malign, and condemn our human neighbor. We can stand up on Sundays to recite the prayers and historic creeds of the church, but once back home we can pick up again with the destructive family patterns of the things we say to one another as well as the things we tell ourselves.

There must have been a toxic dose of hypocrisy moving about the circulatory system of the early church!

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2 SAMUEL 11:26-12:13a

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

“You are the man!” We can imagine David stumbling backwards from the force of Nathan’s words. The shock that David evidently felt shows how far the dissociation from his own sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah had gone. How could he not have seen the parallels between Nathan’s parable and his own recent experience? Part of our attempted ego defense in times we have violated the deeper principles of morality, is the maneuver of “walling-off” and dis-identifying with the part of us that fell to temptation and transgressed the divine laws of well-being. David probably didn’t even see himself as that wretch who had destroyed a man and his marriage.

In just this instance we are given to see the truth-power in a story of fiction. Nathan’s parable of the rich man who took from a poor man the only lamb he owned never happened, strictly speaking. The truth of the story, however, lies at a level below that of factual accuracy. Its truth is that of revelation: pulling back the veil of hypocrisy and pretense that David had hidden his guilt behind. When a story – and most often it is a work of fiction, parable, or myth – brings into the light something unconscious or forgotten, deliberately concealed or dormant as a deeper potential within us, we say it is a ‘true’ story.

Nathan’s parable never happened, and yet is happening all the time.

PSALM 14

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
    to see if there are any who are wise,
    who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
    there is no one who does good,
    no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
    who eat up my people as they eat bread,
    and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
    for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
    but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
    When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
    Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Perhaps, in light of our recent reflections on the episode of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11, we should rephrase this as: “The fool says in his heart, ‘I am king. I can do what I want!'” We don’t mean to identify David permanently with his fall to temptation for Bathsheba, but the plot of his fateful romance with the lady next door reveals an atheism that is much more common and insidious than the dogmatic variety. It’s the kind one frequently finds in religious circles, of all places, where Jesus confronted them with the name ‘hypocrites’ – practical atheists.

Practical atheists are often hand-on-the-heart believers, but who live as if God didn’t exist. They confess the creeds of tradition with tears in their eyes, but then return to their real lives as abusers, cheats, and scoundrels after church lets out. God is to them little more than the ghost in the sanctuary, certainly not the Spirit of Life.

The “company of the righteous” in this psalm, then, is not simply any ol’ congregation of church-goers. Your average church or temple congregation is likely to contain a preponderance of practical atheists – a greater concentration of hypocrites than you are likely to find anywhere on earth at any given time. The truly righteous (not the self-righteous) are those who live with a sense that the God of Love is looking out through their eyes and touching the world with their hands.

MATTHEW 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Hypocrisy has been alive and well in every age. The active circuit from the doctrines espoused in our heads to the deeds performed by our hands is frequently broken at the fuse of our hearts. If the truth we claim to know is to empower how we live, it must be “taken to heart” – that is to say, it must be embraced and internalized in the values that inspire commitment-in-action. When this critical link is missing, our “talk” and our “walk” fall out of alignment and can even become blatantly contradictory.

The biggest gripe Jesus had with the Pharisees (teachers and upholders of Mosaic law) was not over their beliefs or puritanical religiosity, but their hypocrisy. With the Torah and prophets in their doctrinal library, they had access to a treasury of truth that ought to have been practically evident in their behavior. Loving God wholeheartedly and the neighbor as oneself, lifting the burden of poverty and extending hospitality to strangers, helping the hopeless and promoting community – such directives and aspirations were part of their Jewish heritage. But you wouldn’t know it by observing how they lived.

Hypocrisy is the death knell of any tradition, and is for the individual a kind of character suicide. When leaders of a tradition are unmistakable hypocrites, the consequences are not only devastating for those who look to them for guidance, but they often prove permanently fatal. The contradictions reach so deep into the identity of the tradition that it can no longer hold itself together. Sacred truths may be true again, but only someday, after sufficient time has passed and the canceling effect of hypocrisy has died with the phony leaders who misrepresented them.