02 September 2018

When I am too polite to call
someone else a hypocrite

Classical masks on sale near the Acropolis in Athens … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 September 2018,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17B).

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13; Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sometimes our comfortable differences can trip us up in ways that surprise or even embarrass us.

I was talking to a priest colleague recently, who is not from these islands. He was telling me how, within weeks, he came a cropper in a new parish. He comes from a society and a culture where people speak openly and directly. He regards this as a mark of efficiency and a sign of his honesty.

But when he arrived in that new parish, this did not go down well at all.

When he told parishioners what he wanted to do, he thought he was being frank, honest and direct.

But his parishioners immediately saw him as abrupt, abrasive and rude.

In his next parish, he knew he needed to be a little less direct and a lot more diplomatic.

We all know what diplomats mean when they say talks have been frank and honest: bruising encounters with no one behaving in what we might call a civilised manner, or behaving towards each other like Christians.

We respond instinctively as if we expect to be treated politely and that others expect us to treat them politely too.

I offer two examples of how I think Ireland and England are unique in this respect. In other countries, when people pay for a service, they feel that they are doing someone a favour, giving them their custom and their money, and so walk away when the transaction is complete. It is a bonus for them if the person at the till says as they leave, ‘Thank you.’

But here, on these islands, we respond differently: when we pay in a shop or café, or get off a bus or train, it is we, the paying customers, who say ‘Thank You!’

Or again: How often have I asked someone for information that I know or expect them to have – looking for directions on the street, or asking for information at an airport or a train station.

And every now and then we meet someone who is curmudgeonly, who got out on the wrong side of the bed, or is just downright rude. And they answer brusquely, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Look at the timetable.’

And what do I say in reply? I say, ‘Thank You!’

I am just too Anglo-Saxon with my manners for my own good at times. I put on a polite mask, and I put up.

And sometimes we confuse those good manners with the answer we expect to that perennial question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’

Well, look at what Jesus does over in our Gospel readings over these two weeks, and we’re in for something of a shocker.

Over these two weeks, we are going to come across what appear to be interesting, front-parlour meetings with Jesus. But that’s because English is such a polite language, and the translators add their own polite priorities and good manners to how they translate what Jesus says in the original and very direct Greek into palatable, modern English.

This morning, we hear what sounds like Jesus being very rude to some very religious people, who come with real doubts and with polite questions.

How does he respond? He calls them hypocrites.

And to add to that, next week we have two more stories like this. In one, Jesus compares a woman who comes to him in distress with dogs, and he seems to call her daughter what amounts to – in the original Greek – a ‘little bitch.’

In the second story next week, he meets a man who is deaf and dumb – and he sticks his fingers in his ears and spits on him.

Hypocrites, dogs, little bitches, spitting at someone. Now, imagine if I responded in any one of these ways to someone who gives me a curt answer when I try to find my way through a busy train station or a crowded airport, or if they responded to me like that!

This morning, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a genuine question that arises from rules they apply in their religious life, and rules that are radical, reforming, and easy for us to identify with when the reasons behind them are explained.

We need to keep in mind that the Pharisees are very religious, pious and good people. Too often we forget that Saint Paul boasts he is a Pharisee, that among the different Jewish groups of the day the Pharisees are the closest in tradition and practice to Jesus, and that Pharisaic Judaism is the spiritual ancestor of all modern forms of Judaism today.

The Pharisees looked at the demands the religious law of the Book of Leviticus made on the priests in the Temple. This priestly class included some of Jesus’ own family, such as Zechariah, the father of Saint John the Baptist.

Purity and cleanliness were part of their role in the Temple. Before they ate or handled any sacred food, they had to wash their hands thoroughly. But these rules only applied when they were on the rota for priestly duties in the Temple. They took it in turn, and outside that turn, those rules did not apply. Nor did they apply to the people in general, the average, everyday Jew on the street or at home.

But after the people return from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, the Pharisees see the whole people as a royal people, a holy priesthood. And to make the people conscious of how holy the whole nation is, they suggest people should take on those priestly practices, to show they are holy.

In time, this becomes so accepted that people who do not bother washing their hands ritually before they eat are seen as being hypocrites if, at the same time, they are supposed to be holy and religious people.

The word hypocrite comes from classical Greek drama. This word (ὑποκριτής, hypokrités) was used for an actor who on stage puts on a mask and speaks the words of someone else. The actor with the mask could have subtitles with a disclaimer: ‘These are not my words, I am only using the words of Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes … or one of the other great playwrights.’

So, a hypocrite was an actor, a pretender, a dissembler, a hypocrite puts on a mask and says something that represents someone else’s ideas, but that he does not necessarily believe himself.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are using someone else’s words but do not necessarily understand why those rules and regulations came about.

It is not that washing my hands before I eat is a bad idea, or that I am a hypocrite if I do so. If I habitually fail to wash my hands before I eat, I am going to get sick, quickly and often.

But if I forget why I have to wash my hands, I am a hypocrite if I then expect others to do so. And sometimes we leave ourselves in danger of going hungry if we insist on washing our hands before we eat: the facilities to wash my hands are not always to hand on a long train journey or a long flight.

The Pharisees had their own rituals, and I would be silly to think that only they had these problems. We all have our own rituals associated with eating and cleanliness.

It is said one of the principal causes of domestic arguments in the kitchen is about what way to stack the dishwasher, and how to empty it. Should the knives stand up or down? Which sides do you place the glasses and the cups on? Do you rinse the plates before they go in?

To tell the truth, it probably does not matter. But it is still irritating to open the dishwasher and to find someone else has packed it.

The level of questioning from the Pharisees is about a ritual that is probably more important than how you and I stack the dishwasher. And the level of response from Jesus is not as rude as we might first think – just as I shall explain next week why he is not being rude to the distressed woman or the disabled man.

But when he says the Pharisees are hypocrites, Jesus is challenging them to drop the mask and to own the words they speak and to own the reasons for those rituals.

Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view the churches if every parish and church put as much care into seeing that our children are not abused or infected with racism or discrimination or hate as much as we put into seeing that the cups are clean for the tea and coffee after church, or as much as we attend to the cleanliness of the sacred vessels used for the Eucharist or Holy Communion?

If we are worried about how clean the patten and chalice are at Holy Communion, how clean the church is, how clean the coffee cup is when it comes out of the dishwasher, how much more should be worried about how clean the Church is as an institution, how worthy it is to be called – for us to be called – the Body of Christ.

I bought a T-shirt in the Plaka in Athens recently that says:

To do is to be – Socrates
To be is to do – Plato
Do be do be do – Sinatra

As Saint James says in our Epistle reading this morning, we must not merely hear the word, but also make sure that we are ‘doers of the word,’ otherwise we deceive ourselves (James 1: 22, 26), our religion is ‘worthless’ (verse 26) … a polite way of saying otherwise we are hypocrites.

And he tells us what true religion is. Of course, it can be expressed in ritual. But that is all a mask unless it finds its true expression, true religion that is ‘pure and undefiled before God’ – as he reminds us – in caring for orphans and widows in distress … in other words, those on the margins, those on the outside, those who are easy not to see but easy to forget (see verse 27).

We should beware when piety gets in the way of fulfilling the heart of the law: loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself. Beware when our piety separates us from others, for then it also separates us from God.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A T-shirt on sale in the Plaka in Athens … as Christians, we are challenged to bring together our needs ‘to be’ and ‘to do’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23:

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6 He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

‘There are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles’ (Mark 7: 4) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the source of truth and love:
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ (Mark 7: 5) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


350, For the beauty of the earth (CD 21);

630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36);

601, Teach me my God and King (CD 34).

A classical Greek mask in a museum in Naxos in Sicily … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face as he said someone else’s words (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

No comments: