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Hypocrisy and Humility

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Joshua 3:7-17
1Thessalonians 2:9-13Matthew 23:1-12

October 30, 2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Our gospel today is one of the classic statements of Jesus’ twin attacks on hypocrisy which undermines truthfulness before God, and arrogance which abhors the divine trait of humility. The passage begins with a scurrilous condemnation of his religious leaders who “sit on Moses’ seat.” They do give proper instruction in the law, Jesus said, and therefore are to be heeded in that. But they themselves “do not practice what they teach.” They delight in placing the burdens of the law on others, but do not follow the law themselves. Moreover, they are arrogant in their posturing and demands to be shown honor and respect. The passage ends with a broadside typical of Jesus as cited throughout Matthew, Mark, and Luke: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Weighed on the true scale of things, the first will be last and the last first, as he so often said.

We live in a time when hypocrisy and arrogance in our national public life have reached astonishing proportions. Representing themselves as religiously righteous in the promotion of open democracy, our leaders mislead us about reasons for war, about global warming, about threats to the environment, and about political advertisement disguised as news. They intimidate the people who would speak the truth, expose their secret agents for revenge, and may well believe their own lies. Their arrogance in withdrawing from international treaties, in opposing a world court that would hold the United States to the same standards as applied to other countries, and in invading other countries for no justifying reason have made our national character that of a bully. Probably all leaders are tempted to hypocrisy and arrogance, and most succumb to some degree. But the scale of these vices among many of our governmental and religious leaders has transformed the moral fabric of our society. Hypocrisy and arrogance are alive and well in our public life, while truth and humility are in short supply.

My concern this morning is with our spiritual lives, however, not with public life. Some of you have heard me speak before about five special virtues for Christians, not that other religions do not also prize them. They are righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love. Righteousness is the virtue of discerning and pursuing just ways of ordering our lives, especially our lives together. Piety is the virtue of deferring to the intrinsic worth and dignity of each part of God’s creation, considered in itself. Faith is the virtue of courage in embracing the particular circumstances of our world and living within those circumstances with righteousness, piety, hope, and love. Hope is the virtue of intending to give an ultimate account of ourselves no matter what obstacles and failures come our way. Love is the virtue that combines all the others with a creativity that magnifies the value of those loved with righteousness, piety, faith, and hope. Love that lacks righteousness, piety, faith, and hope is deficient.

Now hypocrisy and arrogance are vices that particularly corrupt faith, although they are not good for any of the other virtues either. Faith is important because so many aspects of life are difficult and filled with suffering. On the personal level, our fortunes are always mixed. Our families are wonderful, and also venues of conflict and destruction. Our careers are sometimes exciting, but also sometimes frustrating, occasionally devastating. Our communities can be places of growth and enjoyment, but also places of violence and terror. Our health is sometimes good and we can enjoy the vital surges of nature, but even the healthiest of us will die, usually after illness. When things get tough in our personal lives, we are tempted to live in denial, to pretend to be something we are not, and in a situation different from the true case.

On the social level, the mixture of good and evil is even more complex. Despite the tenuousness of the stock market and the madness of the tax-less/spend-more government that makes tax-and-spend liberals look like fiscal conservatives, our economy is healthy and vital compared with places such as Afghanistan or The Sudan. Yet the health of our economy is based on measures that make other economies less competitive, and it rewards the rich far more than it does the poor. How can we live with the exploitation of other economies and the poverty in our own land, without being in denial? We have a pluralistic, vigorous, society, filled with opportunity and embracing cultural groups that have immigrated from all over the world. For all the current hostility to America as a hypocritical bully, to come to make a life in this country remains the dream of many people in nearly every other society. Yet without being in denial, how can we remember that our immigrants from the beginning dispossessed and nearly exterminated the Native Americans, and that many of them enslaved the Africans who were brought here in chains whose descendents still bear a disproportionately large burden of our poverty, ill-education, and cultural self-hate? It takes great courage, great faith, to acknowledge the underside of our great flourishing democracy and address those issues with righteousness, piety, hope, and love.

Hypocrisy is the great instrument of existential denial. Hypocrisy lets us say that we are engaged with our world while in fact we are in full flight. Jesus thought at least some of the religious leaders of his time talked a good line about faithfulness to the covenant and yet were in egregious contradiction to it. Leaders in our time tout democracy, yet impose governments on others with the barrels of guns, lie, conceal, and distort the truth necessary to democracy, and blatantly hand over increasing power to the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. That is hypocrisy, and the truth is something else. This hypocrisy masks the fact that so many of our policies are in full flight from fostering real democracy, helping the poor, and representing people honestly. The reality of the situation is that we are making enemies and strengthening them, we are selling out the future of our economy to short-term gain for those in power, and we are ruining trust in the institutions we should be able to count on for honesty. So much of our religion is escape to dime-novel fictions.

How many of us in our own lives spin little stories about ourselves that hide from us the true realities we need to face? Most of us have little conversations on mental tapes that we run through our minds throughout the day, conversations that tell us what our identity is, what people think about us, what our skills are, and what our situation is. These conversations cannot be entirely false, or we would be run down crossing the street. But they often are largely false, or highly skewed, to keep us from facing the truth about ourselves and our situation. Some people are clearly pathological liars to themselves. Some other people are very realistic indeed, with little fiction in their sense of ego. Most of us are in the middle, however, using these fictional inner stories to let us live in denial about crucial aspects of our lives.

The first horrible thing about such hypocrisy in our inner stories is that we deceive ourselves by them. Other people can see through our hypocrisy rather easily. Or should I say, we can see through other people’s hypocrisy. But we are blind to it in ourselves. Try as we might, we cannot live honestly. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are honest. Sometimes a good friend can call us to account, but denial is stubborn. Usually it takes some kind of ontological shock, some brutal encounter with the tough side of the divine to shake us out of our ego-driven hypocritical denial.

The second horrible thing about this kind of hypocrisy is that, although we fool ourselves, we have a bad conscience about that. At some deep level we know we are believing our own lies. And in reaction we become arrogant. Arrogance is a kind of deep whistling in the dark that attempts to reassert the lies we live by and force others to acknowledge them. Arrogance is the drive to bend others to our will and force them to acknowledge the virtue we claim for ourselves because we secretly fear that they see through us. We behave arrogantly to call attention away from what we are denying about ourselves and our situation. Of course, that is a self-defeating strategy. People see through our arrogance more easily than they do through our hypocrisy.

Jesus was quite direct in saying that hypocrisy and arrogance are easy to name, and once named they become self-defeating. The hypocrites who have the arrogance of power will be brought down, and the humble will be exalted. The true power of humility, you see, is its honesty. Humble people do not have to tell stories to others or themselves. They simply accept themselves with all their weakness. They look clearly at their situation with all its fragmentation, suffering, and bad luck. They know they can do what they can do, and that’s that. Humble people are not only the opposite of the arrogant, they have no need for hypocrisy. Humble people engage their lives fully and realistically, while arrogant hypocrites live in a dream-world.

How, then, can we be humble? It is not easy to turn off the mental tapes that tell us our hypocritical stories. The truth is too terrifying. In order to be humble, we need faith. Faith is the courage to engage our world without hypocrisy and arrogance. Faith is not an easy virtue to cultivate. It does not mean simple belief, because our religious beliefs are so often among the most hypocritical elements of the stories we tell ourselves. Yet faith does mean believing in our encounters with the divine that shock us out of our hypocrisy. Jesus, the man who was humble to death, is an astonishing shock when we think of what he did. On the cross, he gave up his last illusion, that God was going to rescue him with angels, and still commended his soul to God. What greater faith could one have?

Faith is not just adopting a belief that is honest, it is also the putting on of the way of life that goes with radical honesty before God. Faith is establishing the habits of being faithful to honesty. Faith is organizing one’s life with steady courage that does not flinch in crises or become distracted in ordinary life. Faith is clinging to the realities of our world because this is the world God has given us. Faith is being truthful before God. Faithless life is living a lie before God.

Halloween celebrates the dead in grotesque ways—skeletons, monsters, and witches, of course dandified for children. Among the dead are both hypocrites and humble people. Halloween is a carnival that overturns the usual order in which the hypocrites with arrogant power run things and the humble, honest people are beaten down. In death, as celebrated by this Holyday, things are turned upside down. The hypocrites are seen for what they are—foolish bones, ghosts of unlived lives. The humble too are seen for what they are—saints who live in harmony with the world in which they were created, and thus in harmony with God. Hypocrisy and arrogance give us half-lives. Faith gives us whole lives to engage the world.

Jesus loved the humble, who live with and in the truth. Thanks be to God, Jesus also loved the hypocrites and bullies, and wooed them with his winsome honesty and humility. The divine transparency of his honesty could be ours if we give up our hypocrisy. The world-redeeming strength of his humility could be ours if we give up our arrogance. I invite you to the faith that accepts God’s love for us, in which love we can live in truth without the pathetic self-defense of hypocrisy and arrogance. I invite you to the exalted status of the humble. Take the hand of Jesus.


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