I am speaking today as one hypocrite to another. Yes, I am a hypocrite. Yes, you are a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is as natural to human beings as breathing. Do any of us know many completely unhypocritical persons? Maybe, but I bet you don’t have to use many fingers to count them.
What is hypocrisy? Jesus seems to say that it is two different behaviors. The first is saying one thing and doing another, not “practicing what you preach,” as they say. This behavior often produces injustice, Jesus says. We lay burdens on people but do nothing to relieve those burdens. That is an important word here, “burdens.” Remember earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said,
Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (11:28, 30).
Jesus was highly critical of the religious leaders of his day who taught strict adherence to the Law, a burden, but frequently excused themselves from it and did little to help people out from under that burden.
We recognize this kind of hypocrisy easily. It is easy to spot in other people. It is also relatively easy to fix—or, at least, straight forward. Match up word and deed. Seek to unburden others not burden them.
But there is another kind of hypocrisy that Jesus talks about in this passage. He talks about our insatiable need for approval and to be “better than.”
They do all their deeds to be seen by others.
This kind of hypocrisy is acting in a way that betrays one’s supposed values as false. What one really values is one’s self. Again, remember earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, from a passage we read every Ash Wednesday.
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, in order to be seen by others. The truth is, being seen is the only reward they will get. (6:5) (my translation).
Standing and praying in the synagogue or even on the street corner is not a bad thing. One’s motivation makes all the difference. Do you want to relate to God, the one to whom you are praying, and join the community of praise and thanksgiving? Or do you hope someone will see you doing these things and think better of you?
Now, the truth must be told, that Jesus is clearly speaking to the religious leaders of his day, and his disciples who he hoped would carry on his mission. And Matthew certainly has the religious leaders of his day—Jewish and Christian—as he puts this passage together. So you could argue that this passage is primarily about the people in the room who have the words “The Reverend” in front of the name given them at their Baptism.
And you would not be wrong about that, which is why I stand before you confessing my hypocrisy. But I am not going to let you totally off the hook. Yes, I am a hypocrite, but I am fairly confident that you are too.
But, let’s do talk about me for a bit.
When I told my family that I wanted to be a priest they didn’t have much to say. They are, however, rural Western New Yorkers so they really don’t say much. My mother, however, asked the boyfriend of one of my sisters to make a sign. He and his father had a little side business making magnetized signs to advertise on cars.
So the next time I was home I was presented with a sign that said, “Father Mike.” It was my mother’s way of telling me that she accepted and supported this decision of mine. I didn’t like to be called “Mike” then any more then I do now, and it would have been normal for me to protest the nickname, but I was too busy being delighted by the word “Father.”
This role is very seductive. It breeds hypocrisy like well fertilized soil. Being called something honorable, with strong hints of heroic righteousness and power over others; and then there are the clothes (the clothes!); it is all too easy to be seduced by it all.
And I do get seduced by it. But I also know it is not want Jesus wants from me. Jesus has a different agenda than my self-aggrandizement. Jesus wants me to be a leader and I even think he wants me to be a priest, but he wants me to do those things as one brother among many sisters and brothers.
It is interesting to me how the New Revised Standard translation of the Bible that we use translates a word Jesus uses.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
That makes perfect sense—“one teacher,” “all students.” But “students” is not the word in the Greek original. The word is adelphoi, “brothers,” or “brothers and sisters.” There is also no “and” in the Greek, so it does not have to be read as one sentence. So it is quite possible that in the middle of this passage, Jesus says simply what his main point is.
You are all brothers and sisters.
I believe Jesus meant for his followers to form a community of absolute equals. I do not think there is any getting around this truth. So how did we end up with a significantly hierarchical church?
Of course the answer to that question is a long trip through early church history, but that trip is simply about how the institutionalization of the church was inevitable because it is a human institution. As soon as a group of people need leadership, and they always do, we are off and running, and sooner rather than later some people come to be understood as more important than others.
I do not think that Jesus is opposed to leadership, but he also gave us the Holy Spirit who gives every one of us gifts to use for the common good. Leaders need to be in the trenches, practicing what everyone else is practicing. And I do not think that Jesus even cares so much that some of you call me “father.” It certainly sounds more human than “reverend.” But Jesus does care about why I might want to be called “father,” and why you might want to call me that, or “pastor” or “reverend” or anything other than the name God knows me by.
If all of the deference and all of the clothes are about setting me above you or even setting me apart from you (the old “closer to God” thing), than we are not following Jesus. I am not any closer to God than any of you are. To think so is, I believe, blasphemy.
But the church has designated me for this role and the limited authority that comes with it. The older I get the clearer I get that this designation, this authority, is nothing I have ever earned or deserved, even when I have been at my best. It is all grace, and so it must be held joyfully, thankfully, and, most importantly, lightly.
This passage, which we probably all put in the “I could take it or leave it” category, actually tells some amazingly good news. It tells us that we are all equal in God’s eyes and so we ought to all be equal in one another’s eyes. Because of this we do not need to seek approval or depend upon anyone but God for our self-worth. God is our self-worth. God’s love is the only approval we need.
That is what Jesus means at the end by being a “servant” and having “humility.” It’s not at all about thinking less of ourselves or putting ourselves lower so that other people can be higher. It is about the confidence that our worth comes from God and God alone.
God does not want to put us down. Quite the opposite. We often forget the second half of the last verse in this passage. We hear, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” but we miss “and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus does not mean that if you are humble you will go to heaven. Jesus is telling us the best news we could possibly hear, that if we let God do what God wants to do for us (and that is have humility) we will know true worth and we will be able to live together as equal sisters and brothers, using our gifts to bring more and more people into the fellowship of this worth, this equality.