1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
I was at a gathering of pastors a few years ago. We were from many denominations and for some reason, we were discussing drinking alcoholic beverages. Most of us confessed to enjoying a glass of beer or wine with a meal on a regular basis.
Bill, however, was Wesleyan, and drinking alcohol is frowned upon in that denomination. He said, “If I wanted to have a drink, I would have to be in some place very far away from here.” In other words, he would have to be some place where his parishioners were unlikely to find out about his activity. It struck me how hypocritical this was. He didn’t say, “I don’t drink.” He said, “If I want to drink I have to be where I can’t be caught doing it.”
Jesus is talking about hypocrisy in this passage from Matthew. He is criticizing the scribes and the Pharisees, accusing them of wearing broad phylacteries and long fringes. The fringes Jesus refers to are attached to prayer shawls. The longer they are the easier it is to see them under the other clothes they were wearing. One comment I saw suggested that Jesus was joking that the fringes were long enough for people across the street to trip on.
“Phylacteries” in Greek means charm or amulet. It’s not exactly what the Hebrew means, but it’s close. The Hebrew is “tefillin”, which refers to a pair of small leather boxes attached to long leather straps. Inside the boxes are small scrolls with short quotations from scripture, including the greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind.”
The straps attach the boxes to the upper arm near the elbow and on the forehead. The tefillin are worn during the morning prayer service in literal fulfillment of Deuteronomy 6:8: “Bind these [commandments] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” Modern tefillin are about an inch and a quarter square. Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees make theirs a lot larger, so they could be noticed and thought to be more pious.
The purpose of the scripture, “bind these as a sign on your hand” is to keep God first in one’s life. It was interpreted literally by the Jews of Jesus’ time into the wearing of scripture on one’s body. Did it work to help the wearers of tefillin keep God first in their lives? Jesus says, “No way!” Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites. He says their appearance is very misleading, and they do not practice what they preach. Instead they make keeping the rules of the faith burdensome for people without much money.
Hypocrisy is not limited to the people of Jesus’ time, of course. My friend Pastor Bill is not the only hypocrite of his community either. It is something we are all guilty of. We say to our children, “Don’t ever smoke!” even as we light our own cigarette. “Don’t skip school,” even as we call in sick at work so we can attend a ball game. We wear clothes, buy houses, and drive cars that are beyond our financial means, so our friends can be impressed – or maybe so we can impress ourselves. We wear crosses as jewelry, but don’t always remember to treat each other as Jesus would.
... There’s a video with Professor Timothy Wengert teaching about Lutheran Reformation history and theology. I vividly remember one small piece of his teaching. Wengert uses the image of a ladder or stairway to describe how right we are with God. We like to imagine ourselves as somewhere on the ladder, usually on a middle step. We know we are not perfect enough to be on the top of the ladder, but we know we are better than some other folks, who are definitely on the steps below us.
The thing is, in God’s eyes, there is no ladder. There are no levels of perfection – we are all imperfect sinners, standing on the floor. And we are all forgiven, equally made perfect in God’s eyes, even though we are standing on that same floor.
We have no cause to be hypocrites, trying to make ourselves look better than other people. God knows our true hearts, just as Jesus saw through the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees to their true hearts.
Knowing we are forgiven, granted grace through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, there is no need for us to pretend to be different than we really are. Knowing God is gracious, we can present our true selves to those we meet and work with every day.
Is that unrealistic, to present our true selves to other people? Absolutely!
We know that if we present our true selves to those around us, we will feel vulnerable, because we know that those who do not present their true selves to us will take advantage of us.
We know that we will be judged by them, and we don’t like being judged. We know that we are not perfect – far from it – and we want to appear perfect to those who might judge us.
Even so, we can seek to present ourselves as children of God. Paul puts it this way: “Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
Let us seek to present the truest self we can to the people in our lives. This week, you might try to notice all the times when you don’t present your true self to others. Notice, also, why you don’t present your true self to them. Are you trying to impress them? Do you think they won’t like you? Are you comparing yourself to them and finding yourself better or less than them?
There is no need to be afraid to present your true selves to God. God already knows you, your true self. God knows you through and through, as a forgiven sinner, as God’s very own beloved child.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, you call us your children, and you forgive us when we are not perfect. Teach us to remember this when we are with others, so we may present more of who we really are, both to them and to you. Amen
What are you really good at? What are you not very good at?
Some people are really good at running races or playing soccer or reading stories or doing math and science. But most people are not really good at doing all those things.
Some people brag about how good they are at the things they are good at. And they make fun of people who are not good at those things.
Jesus doesn’t care if you are the best or the worst at running or soccer or reading or math or science. Jesus loves you just the way you are.