Scripture: Matthew 23:1-12
Charles Houston is not a name that many of us know. He tends to mostly be remembered in detailed history books that document the civil rights movement or perhaps 20th century legal developments, but Charles Houston is proof that one person can make a profound difference. He was an African American man born in Washington DC in 1895. Houston was subjected to the racist and systemic unfair treatment that all people of color had to endure in that era. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer. Houston believed the law could be used to fight racial discrimination, and he put that into practice when he left a position at Harvard University to become the general counsel for the NAACP. In that position he was involved in multiple civil rights cases, and he sought to take down Jim Crow laws. The way that Houston did this was not to argue that “separate but equal” was morally wrong, but instead to point out that hypocrisy. Instead or arguing against the legality of separate but equal laws, he simply pointed out that the equal part was a lie. He pointed out that the facilities for black people were not actually equal, there was never an intention to make them equal, and since an equal facility did not exist the laws did not apply. In 1938 this argument won a Supreme Court case that allowed a black man to attend the University of Missouri since a suitable separate facility did not exist for him. This was the first thread pulled that eventually led to desegregation and today Houston is remembered as “the man who killed Jim Crow.” In hindsight we can look back and see how glaring right Charles Houston was. The claims made to separate but equal facilities were hypocritical, because there was never an intention to make the facilities equal. Charles Houston is a testament to how one person in the right place can take a stand against what is wrong, point out the hypocrisy and make a real difference.
When Charles Houston took on Jim Crow laws it was the law of the land, it was the way things were, and for a lot of people (including a lot of Christians at the time) it is the way they wanted things to be. But that did not make it right, and Charles Houston rightly called it out. In this morning’s scripture Jesus does something similar. He called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. He warned his followers to avoid falling into similar hypocritical patterns. Hypocrisy results when what we say we believe does not match what we actually do. Unfortunately, Jesus’ warning is just as relevant today as it was back then.
The gospel of Matthew devotes a decent amount of space to Jesus’ teachings that he makes at the temple during the week leading up to his crucifixion. This morning’s scripture comes from that section. During this time he verbally spars with the Pharisees who oppose him, and as this morning’s scripture illustrates Jesus really does not hold back here. Jesus calls out the hypocrisy that he sees in some of the teachers of the law and Pharisees. Jesus acknowledges that when it comes to knowing the Jewish religious law that is outlined in the first five book of the bible, these religious leaders were second to none. They knew what the law stated, they knew how to apply the law. Jesus acknowledges they are the experts at understanding the law by acknowledging they sit in Moses’ seat. Jesus even states that what the Pharisees and teachers of the law instruct is worth listening to in verse 3, “so you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” The problem is that at least some of these religious leaders had adopted a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy.
The Jewish oral tradition that helped guide the Pharisees and eventually was written down in the Talmud also condemns hypocrisy in a similar fashion. So in this morning’s scripture Jesus is not necessarily calling out the Pharisees wholesale, but is rather calling out two specific hypocritical behaviors that he observed some of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law engage in.
The first of these hypocritical behaviors is found in verse 4, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” The Pharisees believed strongly in Exodus 19:6 which states that the Jewish people were to be a priestly nation. It was their desire to see all of the people hold themselves to the strict, priestly laws. More than just following the Jewish scripture, the Pharisees also held an oral tradition that often had additional regulations in order to better protect the rules found in the scripture. All together this was a lot. It is why Jesus calls it heavy and cumbersome. The hypocritical action here is not burdening people with this load though. The hypocritical action was not being willing to lift a finger to move them. The law was originally given for the Israelites to follow so that they would live in peace with God and one another. It was the law that was meant to bind them together in community with one another and with God. It was following the law that was to make them God’s people. By placing a religious burden on people and then refusing to do anything to help people follow the law it removes the communal aspect. Instead of a community bound together, committed to following God this approach became a top down, authoritative one. It was an approach that gave the teachers of the law all of the authority and power, but none of the responsibility. It was an approach that demanded strict adherence to the letter of the law but completely ignored the purpose and heart of it. It was an approach, which in a word, is hypocritical.
The second behavior is called out in verse 5: “Everything they do is done for people to see.” The goal of the Pharisees strict adherence to following God’s law, was to live righteously. The goal was to live in the most God honoring way possible. It is about having a heart focused on honoring God that leads to consistent God honoring actions. That is hard, soul-searching, disciplined work, so it appears some took a short cut. The focused on outward appearances. Instead of doing the work, they instead focused on looking the parts. The focus on what could be seen and celebrated, not on what was unseen and honoring to God. They hypocrisy was an emphasis on style over substance, and using faith to gain honor for themselves instead of honoring God.
Jesus warned the crowds and his disciples against these forms of hypocrisy, and it seems the warning was warranted because collectively Jesus’ disciples seem to struggle with these same issues today. Today a lot of people find the message of Christians and the practice of Christians to be hypocritically out of alignment. Too many people have been drawn by forgiving grace, only to find churches quick to pile on rules and a rigid set of expectations. Too many people have found themselves drawn to the love of God that can be experienced in a community of believers, only to be told that they must change their very identity before they can be fully accepted. Texas based pastor Zach Lambert summed up the kind of experience many people have had when he wrote: “There are two kinds of ‘everyone is welcome churches: 1. Everyone is welcome to conform to the church’s image of what a Christian looks like. 2. Everyone is welcome to fully embody the unique image God created them to be. Run away from the first and run towards the second.” Proclaiming everyone is welcome in belief, but excluding certain people in practice if they do not follow specific rules or meet a subjective set of expectations is the exact kind of hypocrisy that Jesus called out. If there are indeed two types of churches, then we should strive to be the kind of church that when we say everyone is welcome we truly mean everyone.
We also find the hypocrisy of emphasizing outward appearances instead of inward changes alive and well today. This happens in a lot of ways, but several years ago I heard a story that embodies the worst of this attitude. This happened in a small Indiana town a couple of decades ago. The church was in a poorer area of the state and often the church struggled to meet its annual budget. In this town the only real factory was owned by two brothers, and every Christmas Eve one of the brothers would loudly ask the preacher how short the church was this year. When the offering plate was passed, he would wait until the plate was to be handed to him. In big gestures he would get out his checkbook. This paused the whole service as everyone watched him write his check. Every year, it would then be announced at the January ad council meeting that the church met its budget for the previous year, and everyone knew why. There is no reason why this rich factory owner could not quietly give that money throughout the year, we all know there is a specific reason for doing it this way: “Everything they do is done for people to see.” Our faith practice should focus on a heart that is becoming ever more like Jesus, not on showy gestures that communicates to others our devoutness. Our faith is not measured by how good we look in the eyes of other people, our faith is measured in a heart humbly bowed before God. Having a superficial faith that is all about being seen doing the right things with the right people is hypocrisy.
Jesus called these kind of hypocrisies out, and we should do the same. However, the place we must start, the hypocrite we must call out first, is ourselves. This morning’s scripture is not the only time that Jesus warns against hypocrisy. We also find it in Matthew 7:4-5. There Jesus states, “How can you say to your bother, ‘let me take the speck of your eye.’ When all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” We know there is hypocrisy in Christianity today. We can see painfully glaring examples where people who profess to follow Jesus do not seem to back up that belief with their actions, but before we call them out we must examine ourselves. Instead of rationalize our hypocritical attitudes away, instead of justifying the ways we have been an obstacle to others, and instead of defending the times we have emphasized outward appearances over righteous behavior we instead should confess that we got it wrong that time and repent.
It is not hard to look at Christianity today and find hypocrisy but it does not have to be that way. Christian activist Shan Claiborne wrote, “The best critique of what is wrong is the practice of something better. So let’s stop complaining about the church we’ve experienced and work on becoming the church we dream of.” The story of Charles Houston shows that when someone takes a stand against hypocrisy it can make a lasting impact, and friends we have that opportunity. Yes, people can easily find examples of hypocrisy in Christianity today, but we can stand against it by practicing something better, by becoming the church we dream of. We can counteract the cultural narrative that Christians are authoritative morality police by being individuals and a church who means it when we say everyone is truly welcome.
Instead of taking the shortcut of emphasizing outward appearance, we can pursue personal holiness. Personal holiness is work, it requires times and spiritual disciplines but when we pursue holiness our hearts are made more like Jesus. We are transformed from the inside out, so that when we interact with the others what they see on the outside fully matches on the inside. We should live so that when we show people who we are, what they see is Jesus.
If we individually and collectively choose to practice something better and work on becoming the church we dream of, then that will not put an end to hypocrisy in the greater church. Unfortunately, there will still be plenty of examples for critics and cynics to look towards, but by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit may they not find that here. Instead, may we be a group of committed Jesus followers who practice what we preach. May what we do not, not just be for people to see but may it be for the glory of God. In doing so, may God see fit to use us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.