Nothing can be more infuriating than dealing with someone who pretends to be something they are not. The disdain may come in different ways. We may feel jealous that the person receives praise, accolades and recognition that he/she truly does not deserve. We may feel uncertain and guarded not knowing if we can trust or believe him/her. There is a name for this type of person. It?s called a ?hypocrite? and its defined as ?a person who pretends to have a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.? It comes from the Greek meaning a ?stage actor, pretender or dissembler?, from ?hypo? (under) and ?krinein? (to judge).
Why do I raise the subject of a hypocrite? If we are reading the scriptures each day according to the Orthodox lectionary, this is the 11th Week of Matthew and on Monday and Tuesday the gospel readings were from Matthew 23. It is the account of Jesus confronting the Pharisees and Scribes and the language He uses is very strong. In verses 13 to 28, Jesus says to them seven times, ?Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!? This is the only time of the year that we read these passages other than during Holy Week.
Before we look at why Jesus calls them hypocrites, let us review who they were. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that flourished during the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. They differed from the Sadducees chiefly in their strict observance of religious ceremonies and practices, adherence to oral laws and traditions, and belief in an afterlife and the coming of a Messiah. The Scribes were a group of Palestinian scholars and teachers of Jewish law and tradition, active from the 5th century BC to the 1st century AD, who transcribed, edited and interpreted the Bible. In essence, the Pharisees and Scribes were the religious leaders of Judaism during the time of Jesus who knew and taught the scriptures of the Law and the Prophets.
The problem was that apparently they were not practicing that which they knew and taught. Two different times Jesus calls them ?blind guides? (vv.16,24) because, among other things they gave a pretense of holiness by making ?long prayers? (v.14) but at the same time diminished the sacredness of the temple by emphasizing its outward beauty (vv.16-22). Jesus said that the Pharisees and scribes neglected justice, mercy and faith while emphasizing tithing (v.23). He even said they were full of extortion and self-indulgence (v.25) and concludes by saying they, ?appear righteous to men, but inside are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness? (v.28).
Jesus words are a clear warning to the religious leaders of our modern day. Bishops and priests today must strive as much as possible to practice what we preach. But the lesson is one that everyone can learn from. We must ask ourselves, ?Am I truly a Christian?? Listening to today?s Gospel reading from the 11th Sunday of Matthew (18:23-35) about the unforgiving servant, I must reflect and ask, ?Do I forgive others as Jesus forgave me from the Cross?? Knowing the Greek Orthodox faith and traditions, ?Do I practice all the teachings that make me distinctively an Orthodox Christian or do I merely identify myself as such because I am of Greek descent?? In other words, ?am I just an actor in the Church community or do I really believe and practice what is taught within these walls even when I?m outside of them??
There are three important lessons we can learn from Jesus harsh words to the Pharisees and Scribes. First, when Jesus talks about the temple and the gold in it, He rhetorically asks, ?Which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? (v.17). And He continues by asking, ?Which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?? (v.19). Jesus emphasizes that God dwells in the temple (v.21). Thus, while we have a very beautiful temple with many icons and ornately carved wood, we must be careful not to focus on them and our efforts to pay for them. Rather, the icons and the wood and our donations towards them should be tools that help us draw closer to God Himself.
Second, when Jesus warns that the important matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith are more important than tithing, He is not dismissing the practice of giving ten percent of one?s income, wealth and possessions to the Church. In fact, Jesus says, ?These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone? (v.23). In other words, we cannot say, ?I?m a good person; I love everyone; I forgive everyone; I believe in God? and then give a pittance or leftovers to the God through the Church. It?s not either this or that. It?s both this and that.
Thirdly and finally, we the leaders of the Church, certainly the bishops and priests, but also the parish council members, teachers, parents, and godparents (all of us in some sense) will inevitably fail to live up to the religious and spiritual ideals that we talk about and preach. What then? Do we have an excuse not to follow our moral traditions because our leaders do not? No, at the beginning of Matthew 23, Jesus states, ?The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses? seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works? (v.2-3). So, let us strive to uphold our whole tradition by being living examples to one another. And when we falter, let us forgive instead of focus on the failure. Amen!