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Matthew 5:20-37 – Hypocrisy in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We always remember the first things in life, don’t we? I remember my first car, my first kiss, my first job, and so on. I’ll never forget my first Sunday as a new minister in my first congregation. I was assigned to a small country church where the community all around it had been growing with new houses, new shopping stores and restaurants, but the church had not grown. Although the community all around it had grown, the church had not. Well, the church had entered into an agreement with the Bishop’s office to allow their new minister to make broad changes to help the church grow, and I had special training for just that. My former internship church had grown from 50 people to over 300 people in attendance on Sunday mornings and built a new sanctuary. The Bishop’s office was expecting the same results for this little congregation as well.
It had been at least 5 years since the congregation had a full-time pastor and they were in sore need of some TLC, encouragement and new ideas to help stimulate their fellowship and growth in the community. It seemed that everyone was excited for the new change and the Assistant to the Bishop was there that first Sunday to install me as the new minister to the congregation and to say a few words about the new outreach program I would be undertaking together with the congregation. I was very happy also to have my family and friends all present for the occasion. It was a very nice service and I got to deliver my first message to the congregation about how happy I was to be there to serve them and how eager I was to get to work and to implement all the new ideas I had to help the little country church reach their community in new ways. I also shared with them my ideas to strengthen the membership and enhance the worship service with new music. So it was a nice service with the communion and later, coffee and cake after the service.
After the Assistant to the Bishop had left. After my family and friends had left. After most of the congregation had left for the day, I walked out of the fellowship hall and passed by the sanctuary door. I noticed 3 ladies carrying things in and out of the sanctuary. “Can I help?” I asked one of the ladies as she was making her way down the center aisle. “No thanks,” came the quick reply. “We have it all handled.” She was carrying the decanter of wine and a small plate to a small room called the Sacristy, just off the Narthex, which was located just outside the sanctuary. Now a Sacristy is where they kept the “sacred things,” such as the communion wine, the bread, utensils, wall hangings, communion chalices, and so on. Basically everything used in the sanctuary for communion and for worship. The Narthex is the foyer of the church building. So I stood there for a few minutes and watched as the lady entered the Sacristy and the other two ladies joined her.
I was just about to turn to head to my new office when all three ladies emerged from the little room. They all three lined up in front of me, and the looks on their faces were determined. “Uh oh. Did I do something wrong?” I thought to myself. So I spoke first, “Did you ladies like the service?” “Oh, we liked it well enough,” the first one said. “Those are a lot of ideas you have,” the one in the middle chimed in. “Yes,” I replied. “These are ideas I’ve learned in consultation with the Bishop’s office and these are ideas they would like me to implement as soon as possible. I also have some ideas of my own I would,” but the first lady cut me off. “That’s not going to happen,” she said calmly. ‘What do you mean?” I asked. “Just what I said. That’s not going to happen,” she responded. “Not on my watch.” I was a puzzled. “I don’t get it. Are you speaking for yourself or the church council or just in general?” I asked her. The first one, a short, stocky lady seemed to be the leader of the other two. The third one just kind of looked off towards the windows on the door or at the floor. “I’m speaking for everyone,” the first lady said. “My parents helped to build this church. I was baptized in the church and my children were baptized in this church. We are telling you these changes are not going to happen. Period.”
My mind ran through a range of scenarios as I stood there looking at them. I could take a heavy handed approach and lay down the law, but I didn’t think that was going to be helpful. I could be dismissive, blow off her statement with a wave of my hand and walk away. Or I could try to reason with them. On hindsight, I should have blown off her comment and walk away, but I didn’t. I tried to reason with them. “Just what exactly are you saying is not going to happen here?” I asked her. The second one jumped in, “You’re not going to change this church.” The middle lady was obviously nervous because her hands were fidgeting and she kept licking her lips. “But that is why I am here, and that is why the congregation called me to be the new minister here – to change the church to help it grow,” I tried to reason with her. “My specialty is to help the church to change so it can grow, otherwise, one day, the church will close because of a lack of membership and a lack of funds to keep the lights on. Don’t you want the church to continue?” I asked. The first lady spoke again, “Oh, our church will continue, alright. We always have in the past. We’ve had tough times before and we can get through them just fine. We don’t need you or the synod to come down here and change our church.” I could see her resolution growing stronger. “I don’t understand why you see change as a negative thing. Everything has to change. You’re not wearing the same clothes as 10 years ago are you? You’re not driving the same car as 15 years ago are you? Fashions change. Cars change. Houses change. Jobs change. Businesses change to keep pace with society so they can grow. Everything has to change, move and grow or it becomes stagnant. What happens to water when it becomes stagnant? If a church becomes stagnant, it begins to decline. If it’s not growing, it is dying. Can’t you see that?” I thought for sure I must have convinced them with my little piece of logic, but no. “I’m well aware of how things change in life. I am a nurse,” the first lady responded but was cut off by the second lady. “The church is my anchor,” she said. “What?” I asked more to myself than anybody. “The church is my anchor,” she said again. “You’re right. Everything in the world changes. We all know that, but the church is my anchor. In the middle of all that change, the church anchors me. From week-to-week the church is the anchor in my life that keeps me grounded and whole. And you can’t change that anchor for me.”
I paused for a moment to think. “I think I see what you are saying,” I said slowly, “but how has your anchor idea worked out for everyone else here?” I asked her. “It’s worked just fine,” she quickly answered. “Uh, I don’t think so,” I dared to say. “Look around. The sign out front is chipping away and falling apart. The bushes outside are all overgrown up to the eves. There is no landscaping. The building is dirty and dingy, the carpets are all worn out and faded. I heard one guy saying the roof needs fixed. You may have your anchor, but the church is falling apart all around you. And if your anchor idea is working for everyone else, then where are they? I looked over the books and saw that the membership has declined so much over the years, the church barely stays afloat financially. Without the help of the Bishop’s office, you can’t even afford a full-time pastor. Can’t you see? The church needs to change and grow, that’s why the Bishop has placed me here. And besides, we have an agreement signed between the church council, myself, and the Bishop’s office that gives me wide latitude to make changes to help the congregation grow.” I was beginning to get a little frustrated with them. I did have a signed agreement. I thought all these things had been worked out before I got here because the church council realized that although the community around the church had been growing for some time now, the church has remained stagnant with a part-time pastor and had no real outreach to the community except for a food pantry program that ran external to the church, but used their facility.
My tactic ultimately back-fired, however. The first lady spoke again, “We don’t care about the agreement that’s been signed.” This is our church. It doesn’t belong to the Bishop’s office or to you or anybody else. It is our church and we take care of it just fine.” All three ladies now linked their arms together to form a three-link chain. “This is not your church,” I said. “This church belongs to Jesus Christ. It’s not your church, and I’m,” but she cut me off. “It is our church. We own the building and the property, and nobody is going to change anything that happens in the worship service. We’ve seen pastors come and we’ve seen pastors go, and we’ll see you go before you ever change anything that happens in this church.” I was astonished, just simply astonished, and I was beginning to get angry. So rather than trying to argue any further with them, I turned towards the exit doors and said over my shoulder, “You ladies are going to make this very difficult, aren’t you,” I said more out of resignation more than anything else. The middle lady said, “That’s up to you.”
As I got to the exit door, I turned and looked them standing there with their arms linked together. I saw that they were joined by a fourth lady who just walked out of the fellowship hall. “I wanted to see what was going on,” she said as she linked her arm into the first lady’s arm, who was also her daughter, I later found out. “We’re just having a discussion with the new pastor,” she said to her mom, but never took her eyes off from me. I straightened myself up, and said, “This church needs change if it is going to grow and be a viable part of this community again, otherwise, I think the Bishop should have the sheriff come down here to chain the doors and put the building and property up for sale because you’re only putting off the inevitable.” “He can try,” the older lady said as if she had been part of the conversation all along. What more could I say? So I exited the doors with every intention of going home and resigning.
Jesus was talking with his disciples on the mountain top giving them the Sermon on the Mount. He had waited high up in the mountain for those serious enough to climb the mountain to hear him. He taught them the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, he taught them what it meant to be blessed, that is, set apart for the Kingdom of Heaven, he taught them that to not put these values into practice in their lives was like salt losing its saltiness and a light hidden under a basket. Then he taught them how the inner person mattered just as much as the outer person. He said to them in Matthew 5, verse 20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”
Now to the disciples the scribes and Pharisees probably seemed to be the most virtuous and righteous men in town, but Jesus pointed out that sometimes, the most virtuous and righteous appearing people we see in life can sometimes be the biggest pretenders. They may make a public show of their religious beliefs, virtues, and so on, but they actually do not possess them on the inside. We’ve all seen this in life, right? It’s called hypocrisy.
The word hypocrite came into the English from the Greek word “hypokrite,” which means “an actor” or “a stage player.” The Greek word itself is a compound noun: it’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as “an interpreter from underneath,” because the actors in ancient Greek theater wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks. The Greek word took on an extended meaning to refer to any person who was wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not.
To illustrate his point, Jesus chose the scribes and the Pharisees because they were an easy target in his day. They were the public religious figures of his day, much like the Catholic Priests and ministers of our day. Jesus didn’t choose them because they were all hypocritical evil men in his day, no more than we would say that all Catholic Priests are child molesters in our day. So he wasn’t stating that all scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites. That just wouldn’t be right because Jesus himself was of the same school as the Pharisees. Pharisee means, “separated ones,” and they were called “rabbi,” which means, “teacher.” Jesus was often called rabbi many times during his ministry, even though your Bible may change the word to teacher, or good teacher, it still means rabbi underneath.
I’m sure there were many rabbis who were very good, decent people on the inside and out. But I’m sure there were also others who were corrupt hypocrites as well, and those stuck out to Jesus. Just look at our day. We’ve all heard stories of Catholic Priests who have been caught molesting children. Here all along they appeared to be living a holy life on the outside, but on the inside they were lusting after boys in their hearts. They were hypocrites. We’ve all heard about the ministers who have fallen into adulterous affairs, scandals and corrupt ministries, such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Baker, and so on. You name it, the public religious figures of Jesus’ day and our day have fallen into ruin even though they appeared to be righteous people on the outside, but inside they were like dead men’s bones and white washed tombs. People are people whether back then or today, so Jesus used them as his example to warn his disciples against hypocrisy in the heart.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, being good, religious, following all the commandments and appearing to be a spiritual person can hypocrisy if it is not motivated by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven on the inside, which Jesus so aptly taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus also gave examples from the 10 Commandments, such as “Thou shall not kill,” but hating someone else; “Thou shall not commit adultery,” but lusting after someone else; Even though we haven’t actually broken the commandment of killing or adultery, it is as good as doing it if we harbor it in our hearts. Jesus was speaking to the heart of the person. The inside person must be congruent with the outside person if we are to be true to God, in other words, genuine. Think about this, would you want a friend who acted like your friend on the outside, but secretly hated you on the inside? I think I would want a friend who is genuine. God is no different. Jesus understood this concept very well.
Consider this, in 1 Samuel 16:7, The prophet Samuel was sent to Bethlehem because God rejected Saul as king over Israel. God told Samuel to go to Bethlehem and God would show him which person to anoint as king of Israel. Samuel saw Jessie’s first son Eliab, and thought surely this would be God’s chosen because he was tall, strong and good looking. He would have made a great looking king for the people, but God told Samuel in the second half of verse 7, God said, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
The ladies I encountered my first Sunday being installed at this church are examples to me of the dangers of hypocrisy. You see, as time went on, I thought we put what happened that first day behind us because these ladies gave every appearance that they were supportive of the new program of outreach to the community. They seemed like good and faithful women because of their worship attendance and being there to help out all the time at church, but I found out years later, that actually, behind the mask, they were really seeking to control everything that happened at church. Well, the church did change and over the years of my tenure, many people did join the church, but I found out my last year there that those ladies had formed a secret committee after that first day. This secret committee met at the first lady’s house, and they would discuss and identify new people that joined the church they wanted to drive away. They schemed as to how to sabotage anything they thought was a threat to their church. In the tenth year of my ministry with them, one of the ladies in their secret committee broke down out of the blue in a council meeting and confessed the whole thing to the church council. She stated she couldn’t take the hypocrisy any longer. She came to see the truth that although these ladies never saw themselves as hypocrites, because they wore such a convincing mask of Christianity, somehow she was able to see behind the mask at how resentful, manipulating, conniving and deceitful they really were; white-washed tombs.
Over the years I saw a lot of people come and join that church, but I never knew that they were secretly being driven away. Today, after almost 4 years after my departure, they have their church back, they have things back to the way they wanted, and they are back to their 30 to 40 people as in the day I started.
As we travel the spiritual road of life, hypocrisy can obstruct our path like thick weeds in the way. We may not see them, but the God of Israel sees them because he sees the true motivations of the heart. We must remember that our internal thoughts and attitudes do matter to God, and sometimes we need to root those weeds out so we can continue on the right path. The commandments of God can help us because they are like a mirror that show us our true selves and the true motivations of our hearts so we can pull those weeds of hypocrisy out of our way. And the values of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount can help guide our inner selves to stay true to the spiritual road. I hope this message has been a blessing to you on your spiritual walk. Amen.
Pastor Robbie F Taylor