“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23:
When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. —For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.— So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.
“From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Yesterday, my pastor noted that the word hypocrite derives from a Greek term (hypokrites) that translates to “stage actor, pretender, dissembler” in English. That’s the modern sense of the word, too, in its own way. Certainly, we have become very familiar with this concept in all phases of our lives. Nothing is more reviled in social, political, or economic relationships than a hypocrite. It has become one of the most damaging insults one can throw out, likely in no small part because of the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
But do we have a sense of the real meaning, and the real problems with hypocrisy?
In this Gospel reading, the sense of the definition “stage actor” comes through very loudly. The Pharisees put a great emphasis on the external when it came to observing rituals and laws, as related in many parts of the Gospels, and this is no different. The laws handed down from Moses were intended to help keep the Israelites pure by using externals to emphasize internal spiritual cleanliness, Jesus instructs, but the modern Israelites had forgotten the latter while clinging to the former. That kind of cleanliness was just a show, an entertainment, than kept Israelites from dealing with the true sources of spiritual uncleanliness. Jesus then goes on to describe what we now think of as the mortal sins, none of which can be cleansed merely by washing hands and performing ritual purification of household implements.
That’s not to say that washing hands before meals is bad, of course, and we certainly know more these days about why it’s important to do so. But while unwashed hands at meals may be a sign of risk or ignorance, it’s not a window into the soul. The Pharisees are judging the spiritual state of the disciples based on external practices — or more to the point, based on the show the Pharisees assume they put on. Jesus quotes Isaiah and implies that this is done deliberately, in order to allow the Pharisees to consider themselves superior to others. That lets them off the hook for their own sins, their own defilements, which come from within and which the Pharisees cover with their own “stage acting” of the externals of the law.
What does Jesus want from His disciples? Consider our other two readings today. In Deuteronomy 4:1–8, Moses instructs the people on the reason for the law. It shows obedience to the Lord, but it has another purpose as well, one that goes far beyond mere stage acting:
Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
The purpose intended for Israel was to become a nation of priests and prophets, a shining city on a hill that would transform the world through its embrace of the Lord’s wisdom. Through Israel, the Lord would bring all the world back to Him and salvation. Adherence to the law would show devotion to God, certainly, but true devotion that would change the world. The world would see the blessed state in which Israel would thrive, and would convert to devote themselves to the Lord as the truth became clear to them.
That will come true through Jesus Christ, but did not happen immediately. Instead of remaining in true devotion to the Lord, Israel fell into defilement. They kept up temple worship but erected idols to false gods as well. They became more oriented to worldly power than a mission of priesthood and prophecy to convert the rest of humanity to the Lord. The law, by the time of Christ, represented true devotion for many Israelites — hence the crowds that flocked to Jesus when he taught — but for the ruling classes became a kind of play performed to maintain their own authority by castigating others.
James writes about what is lost in hypocrisy in today’s second reading (James 1:17–18, 21b–22, 27):
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
What was the purpose of the law? To keep oneself unstained by the world. The world itself is not evil; God pronounced it “very good” in Genesis for a reason. We become stained by the human predilection to selfishly bend the world to our own appetites and desires, in ways that hurt and disrespect other children of God, and make us jealous of God’s authority and power. That is the nature of sin.
Hypocrisy is a consequence of sin when one refuses to see it in themselves while assuming it in others. It is not hypocrisy to believe in the Word of God and fall short of it; we spend our lives trying to form ourselves to the will of God, but we are imperfect and need Jesus’ grace and forgiveness to persevere. I’m no different on this than anyone else. I fall into the sins Jesus describes in this Gospel reading, and sometimes catch myself going through the motions of worship. In fact, that happened yesterday; I absent-mindedly offered my wife a handshake during the sign of peace rather than our usual affectionate embrace, which made it pretty clear that my mind was elsewhere when it should have been focused on the Lord. I am a sinner, and I struggle like anyone else does with it.
Hypocrisy comes when we chastise others for a standard that we refuse to adopt for ourselves, or when we only make a pretense of following it for public consumption. We become pretenders, dissemblers, stage actors when we mouth words but find excuses for ourselves to repudiate them through our own actions. Our status as sinners should give us empathy and understanding when our brothers and sisters fall short, rather than condemn others in an attempt to make ourselves look better by comparison. We all fall short of the glory of God.
At one time, someone described sin and salvation to me with this metaphor. Sin sets up a chasm between ourselves and salvation that, for the sake of argument, is fifty feet across and infinitely deep. No one can jump that on their own. If that’s true, what does it matter if you can only jump five feet, or forty-five feet? The outcome is the same either way, without the grace of God to save us.Hypocrisy blinds us to that reality, and is another way in which the world seduces us into thinking we do not need the Lord, and worse yet, that we can manipulate Him through cheap tricks.
That hypocrisy has consequences for the world, too. The Body of Christ is the new spiritual Israel in that we are meant to show the world the path to salvation. That evangelism takes place not just through handing out Bibles or talking about the faith, but in how we live our lives as Christians in this world. We are called to be the shining city on the hill. To what do our lives as Christians attest?