Luke 13:10-17 August 21, 2022
Do you remember the first time that church made you mad? Controversy swirled with cream and sugar into coffee after church. Personalities were on full display. There was a discussion, an argument, and a vote. Then a few people left church, and maybe you thought about going too. I have often wanted to speak the words of Jesus, “You hypocrites!” It is one of the most damning things you can say to someone. Even the sound has an edge, “hypocrite!” The word means to appear falsely, false in virtue, or to act in contradiction to your stated values. When I notice this behavior in others, I feel the heat, a quick boil, and it rises up the back of my neck and head and then throbs in my temples, which activates the tip of my tongue for a few choice words. So, the energy moves from the old reptile brainstem, the fight or flight response. I sense hypocrisy; the reptile brain says, “Fight,” and quickly activates the cerebral cortex to counter untruth. This whole complicated process takes about half a second. The scientific term for this process is “BS detector.” I grew up between a cattle farm, a hog farm, and a cookie factory, and I always knew which way the wind blew. If someone tells me something false, my hackles rise.
Why does the falsehood of hypocrisy stimulate such quick, angry reactions? One reason is false appearances are dangerous. Predators do this to lure you in. Someone is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The snake urges you to take a bite. The snake-oil salesman pitches the miracle cure; the politician says there will be a chicken in every pot while taking thousands of dollars from the poultry industry. Hypocrites! Feel the burn? That is your BS detector! We need it to survive, or we are just sheep to the slaughter. When false virtue or inconsistency between values and behavior creeps into the church, we collapse like a sandcastle when the tide flows in. I often hear this when people say, “I wouldn’t go to church because of all the hypocrites.” I am tempted to say, “Don’t worry, there is always room for one more.”
There is a second reason hypocrisy causes strong reactions. If we are honest, living consistent with our values is nearly impossible. We long to be pure and good and right, but even saints have their blind spots and contradictions. To protect our ego and self-image, we tend to block out our inconsistency. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m a good person. Psychologist Carl Jung called this the shadow, the discrepancies in ourselves we bury. He said, “That which we hate about ourselves, we project onto others, and then we try to kill it.” If Jung is correct, then the most potent tool against hypocrisy is not necessarily speaking against it but looking in the mirror.
Even the best of us get it wrong sometimes. Two great Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, once met to discuss their theological differences over communion. Zwingli focused on Jesus’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and believed taking communion was a symbolic ritual. But Luther noted Jesus also said, “This is my body.” Luther didn’t think we were literally eating flesh and drinking blood, but there was still a real presence of Christ in bread and cup. After hours of debate, Zwingli called a halt and suggested that they respectfully disagree and take communion together as a symbol of Christian unity. Luther adamantly refused and would not shake Zwingli’s hand. This divide meant the two main branches of Protestantism stayed separate and did not reconcile communions for nearly 500 years. I preached for three years in a Lutheran Church and learned to appreciate Luther’s immense courage and gifts in Biblical translation. He changed the direction of the church, but he missed the essence of the communion table, which is we all come together, imperfect sinners, to be whole through the love of Christ.
Luther is not alone in this tendency to be argumentative over what seem to be minor differences in doctrine. There is an old story about a church in Maine that could not agree on the color to paint the front door. They argued for months at church council until someone painted the door late one Saturday night. When everyone came on Sunday morning, the door was purple. Nobody liked it. But since they could not agree on a color, the door stayed purple. After a few years, everyone started referring to the church with the purple door. Over time most people forgot the original church name. Sometimes our hypocrisy is an outright lie; it comes from losing touch with our true nature and purpose.
I confess that I come to this scripture with a bias. It annoys me greatly when people judge others or squabble over details of scripture and church practice while ignoring the big picture of what faith should be. It is easy to think I would have been on the side of Jesus if I were there. But if I always read scripture just to confirm my bias, I’m on the side of what is good, right, faithful; am I getting the point? It is important not just to read the Bible, but to let the Bible read me, and tell me the truth so I can be my true self.
I put myself in the place of the leader of the synagogue. If someone comes to church, whom I don’t know, and heals someone during the passing of the peace, how would I react? I hope I would move past my shock and skepticism to awe and celebrate with the person healed. But would I go ahead with the sermon? Talk about being upstaged! Why even bother to share my hours of carefully crafted words once Jesus has entered and broke open the veil between heaven and earth and revealed the nature of God? I might as well ask Genie to play the closing hymn and share a few announcements before we go.
The Jungian interpretation of the leader’s reaction might be that he felt threatened by Jesus. He saw his human limitations and felt overshadowed by Jesus in his own synagogue, undermining his authority. He is jealous. I am so less than Jesus, he realizes. So, he does what many people do to save their ego; he pulls Jesus down and uses scripture to do it. “There are six days on which work ought to be done: come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day,” he fumes. He is telling Jesus he just violated one of the ten commandments to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. How dare you break God’s law, Jesus?! The woman has been crippled for 18 years, and you could have waited till Monday. Did the leader see Jesus as a professional faith healer and interpret Jesus as working on the Sabbath? Your doctor’s office should be closed on Sunday, Jesus.
Jesus is having none of this argument. The first word out of his mouth is “Hypocrite!” He quotes scripture and says if it is OK to untether a cow or an ox so they can eat and drink on the Sabbath, then can’t we give a human being what they need too? Boom! I am so glad Jesus was not around for some of my ego-driven moments. This is not a gentle rebuke or suggestion for reflection. The message is to do some good or get out of the way. Don’t waste my time with your picky little arguments. In the following verses, Jesus takes over the sermon time and tells two parables about the Kingdom of Heaven coming on the earth. It is like a mustard seed that is tiny at first but grows like an invasive species everywhere. The Kingdom is like the leaven in the dough, hidden but rising and filling the space! So, this one healing is a sign of God coming to make all of us whole. I don’t know what the other guy was going to preach, but this is powerful.
Still, I feel some empathy for this humiliated synagogue leader. Maybe he was doing his best to lead his flock faithfully. He studied scripture for years and worked vigorously to keep all the commandments. Interpreting the scriptures was his tool, and he wielded it with the precision of someone who builds ships in a bottle. And yet this was not enough. No matter how brilliant, our intellectual powers never encompass or replace God. Sometimes our faith calls us to recognize our limitations and notice when the Spirit moves and get out of the way so God can do something sacred.
This is where the scripture story really hits home. Many pastors have told me they feel like a fraud sometimes. The ones who won’t admit it scare me. Do you think God works through you? It is hard to have absolute confidence that we are in tune with God, walking with Jesus, and always on the side of what is good and right. Sometimes we overcompensate. We vigorously defend what we know, what we have. We must sing from this hymnal. This is the proper way to do communion. We must believe this part of the creed, and the church door should be the appropriate shade of red, an American flag belongs in the sanctuary, but a rainbow flag does not, or vice versa. Don’t heal on the Sabbath, and I think you should not sing Christmas Carols during Advent, at least until the Children’s pageant.
We all have our moments of hypocrisy. It’s inevitable. But it isn’t necessarily because we aren’t trying or don’t care. We just fear we are frauds, and so we try too hard at the wrong things. I’m not Jesus, and I don’t have to be. Sometimes the best thing to do is know when to get out of the way and let God work. It is always the right time to celebrate in wonder when the unexpected good breaks in, even when it messes with our Sunday morning plans. Amen.