29 August 2021

Keeping my hands and face clean,
but still behaving like 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)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 August 2021,

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIII)

11 a.m.:
Parish Group Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

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

There is a link to the readings HERE

‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone’ (Song of Solomon 2: 10-11) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Are you still sanitising your hands every time you go into a shop, a church, an enclosed public space?

Are you still wearing a mask in those places?

Indeed, are you still wearing masks outdoors and on the street?

The arguments about sanitising our hands and wearing facemasks are a very different order of argument to the arguments in this morning’s Gospel reading about washing my hands before I prepare food, and about presenting that food with clean cups and plates and knives and forks.

It is so easy for me to look at the people I don’t like and then to find passages in the Bible that shore up, that support, that justify that prejudice, and make me feel good because I now feel a little more smug, a little more superior.

And that is precisely the moment when the Jesus of this morning’s Gospel reading steps in and upbraids me, and calls me a hypocrite.

In Greek, the word hypocrite (ὑποκριτής, hypokrités) was used for an actor who masked or hid his face. It came to mean someone who plays a part on stage. Because these people did not speak their own words, this label came to mean a pretender, what we call today a hypocrite.

When I speak words taken at random, or taken out of context in the Bible, I need to be careful I am not using them out of context, or to condemn people for a fault that is not necessarily theirs, something I project onto them.

Some time ago, I came across this piece of doggerel inside a church porch in Ardmore, Co Waterford:

I was shocked, confused bewildered
as I entered heaven’s door,
not by the beauty of it all,
nor the lights or its décor.

But it was the folks in Heaven
who made me sputter and gasp –
the thieves, the liars, the sinners,
the alcoholics and the trash.

There stood the kid from sixth class
who swiped my lunch box twice.
Next to him was my old neighbour
who never said something nice.

Bob, who I always thought
would rot away in hell,
was sitting pretty on cloud nine,
looking oh so well.

I nudged Jesus, ‘What’s the deal?
I would love to hear your take.
How come these sinners get up here?
God must have made a mistake.

‘And why is everyone so quiet,
so sombre – give me a clue?’
‘Hush child,’ he said ‘they’re all in shock.
They weren’t expecting you.’

If I saw myself the way others see me, I would be less reluctant to open my mouth so often.

But the Church is full of people who continue to judge others – even other members of the Church – and justify their judgmentalism with passages of Scripture they quote out of context, sometimes even claiming passages of Scripture that simply do not exist.

And it’s not just about washing hands and pots and pans. If it was only that, it might be funny.

There are people who condemn people for their sexuality, they look down on people because of who they fall in love with or marry, they even claim to uphold Biblical standards of marriage.

But David, who we have been reading about at length in recent weeks, offered no Biblical standards of marriage. Solomon, who provides our first reading this morning, had 700 wives and 300 concubines – once again, hardly a Biblical standard of marriage.

I find it quite shocking, yet it seems inevitable, that many people in the Church of Ireland – not in these dioceses, as far as I know – use arguments about sexuality, bolstered with phrases such as ‘Biblical standards of marriage,’ to express prejudices about sexuality. Some even remain opposed to women being ordained priests and bishops.

This is using another voice, another set of words, Biblical quotations to express what is not in the Bible; the very origins of the word ‘hypocrite’ in the classical Greek and in this reading readily come to mind.

The Song of Songs, which we have been reading from this morning, is not afraid to affirm healthy sexuality, and in a creative and poetic way it compares the pleasure two lovers find in each other with the love of God for God’s people.

Here the voice of God is poetically represented by the voice of the shepherd; and the voice of the people is expressed by the woman. This woman is the voice of the people who love God and she also speaks back to the people on behalf of God: ‘My beloved speaks and says to me…’

In the Church, there can be no discrimination against people in ministry based on gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity or language, for God knows no such discrimination.

I too easily become a hypocrite when I use the words or behaviour of others to condemn them, without having the courage to say exactly where I stand.

Father Tikhon (Murtazov), who died some years ago [9 June 2018], was a much-loved Russian spiritual guide. A nun, Sister Olga (Schemanun of Snetogorsk Monastery), recalled how he welcomed everyone who came to visit him and who asked for his guidance and prayers.

Amazed at his kindness, she asked him one day: ‘Why don’t you refuse anyone? You bless whatever they ask of you.’

‘We’re in difficult times now,’ he said. ‘It’s better to sin by love than by strictness.’

We should worry as much about making careless wounding remarks as much as we would worry about preparing food unhygienically.

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 we have sanitised our hands, are wearing colourful facemasks, seeing that the cups are clean for the tea and coffee after church on Sunday morning – or even as much as we attend to the cleanliness of the sacred vessels used for the Eucharist or Holy Communion?

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

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

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (NRSVA):

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) … pots and pans in the kitchen in Bryce House on Garinish Island, Glengarriff, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year B).

The Collect:

Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
Help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Collect of the Word:

Cleanse our consciences, O Lord,
and enlighten our hearts
through the daily presence of your Son Jesus Christ,
that when he comes in glory to be our judge
we may be found undefiled and acceptable in his sight;
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
you feed your children with the true manna,
the living bread from heaven.
Let this holy food sustain us through our earthly pilgrimage
until we come to that place
where hunger and thirst are no more;
through 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)


597, Take my life, and let it be (CD 34)
630, Blessed are the pure in heart (CD 36)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised 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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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