Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hypocrisy

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

In this morning’s gospel account [Luke 13:10-17] we read that our Lord miraculously healed a woman on the Sabbath, only to be publicly rebuked for His merciful act by an angry synagogue official. There is a saying that no good deed goes unpunished, and this story would seem to support that cynical observation. In the end however it was the synagogue official who got spanked, and rightly so, for he was guilty of what is very likely the worst and least forgivable sin of a religious person: the sin of hypocrisy.

The word hypocrisy is said to date back to the days of ancient Greek theater in which the actors wore masks to portray their various characters. It implies the putting on of a “false face” or of pretending to be what one is not. Unfortunately, hypocrisy is not always so intentional nor obvious to the person guilty of it. There can also be what we might call a latent hypocrisy, a hidden hypocrisy in which the person feels that they are the genuine article, but their attitudes and actions eventually betray that they are not. This would be the worst kind of hypocrisy because the person himself doesn’t see it, and may even blindly deny it when it is revealed in him.

This was the sort of hypocrisy of the synagogue official in our story. I’m sure he was a very religious man who felt he was quite sincere in his practice. Nevertheless, Jesus labeled him a hypocrite, because the man had forgotten the very purpose of his religion and practice, namely to love God and his neighbor as himself. The man was so focused on the outward observance of the Law, that he neglected entirely the inward action of the Law, which was to lead one toward love and compassion.

The story begins with Jesus teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. The New Testament records more than ten occasions on which Jesus’ ministry took place within the synagogue. The synagogue was a natural place to find Jesus, not simply because it was a convenient spot to teach, but because Jesus, as a pious and observant Jewish man, would have always been in the synagogue on the Sabbath, or in the Temple during every major Jewish feast. He did so not out of legalism or blind obedience to His religion, but because He genuinely loved God and must always be in His Father’s House, going about His Father’s business.

To put it in our terms, Jesus would never have missed Matins, would never have made a habit of slipping in late to the Divine Liturgy, and would certainly have been present at every Feast and service of the Church. The Orthodox Church needs more people like Jesus. Or to put it another way, we need more Orthodox Christians who are willing to become Christ-like in their love for God and in their devotion to Him in worship.

On this particular day a woman was present who had an infirmity that had left her terribly crippled and bent over for eighteen long years. Jesus released her from her infirmity, laying hands on her and straightening her body to restore her to complete health. The dear lady glorified God immediately. But the ruler of the synagogue became furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath.

Not having the courage to face Jesus, the ruler instead turned toward the people and exclaimed, “There are six days on which men ought to work: therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day”. Could he have possibly said anything more stupid? Blinded by a heartless legalism, and most likely by a deep envy of Jesus as well, the ruler could not praise God for what he had just witnessed. Instead he could only complain that the miracle had not been done on the proper day of the week.

How many miraculous healings had this man seen over the course of his life? I’m going to guess that this was probably the very first. Yet he could not glorify God, he could not even face Jesus or thank Him, but could only quibble over what he saw as a breaking of the rules. Jesus pointed out that any man will untie his animal on the Sabbath and lead it away to water and refresh it, and therefore it was right for this woman to have been released and refreshed on the Sabbath day. This made perfect sense, but the logic was lost on the synagogue official because he did not possess even the most basic compassion or wisdom to rejoice that this daughter of Abraham had been set free from Satan’s captivity.

What would make his sin even worse is the possibility that he had known this woman and had witnessed her suffering for so many years. Being badly crippled as she was, it is not likely that she could have traveled far to find Jesus, which would indicate that she may have been from this particular synagogue. Everyone rejoiced to see this woman healed, save the one man who lacked the love that his religion was supposed to impart to him. Thus he truly was a hypocrite, and was more bound by Satan than the woman had ever been.

If we wish to draw a lesson from this story, it would be that we must guard ourselves against hypocrisy by allowing our religion to bear the fruit of love and compassion in our lives.

It is a dreadful thing to be a Christian hypocrite. Bad enough are those who are knowingly negligent of their faith: who habitually ignore the fasts of the Church, forsake prayers night and day, actively engage in sinful thoughts and actions, or neglect to support the parish both financially and with faithful, punctual, and joyful attendance. But perhaps even worse is the situation of those who seem faithful in their religious practice, but who also are utterly lacking in Christian love. Sometimes these folks are easy to spot. They may be the loudmouths on the parish council or in the choir, who don’t care what discord they sow as long as their voices are heard and their opinions are accorded proper reverence. Often however, there is more subtlety present. People without love may be very religious outwardly, but inside are quick to judge others, painfully long at holding grudges, and very slow to offer any genuine help or prayers for those in need. Such people will often present themselves as very committed Orthodox believers, perhaps even as true pillars of their community. Yet they are more like rotting timbers, only waiting to let go and bring the roof down on many.

We are all fallen and broken people living in a fallen and broken world. We don’t need to look around to imagine who these descriptions might fit. We need only to look within ourselves to see if our Orthodoxy is progressively leading us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. It seems incredible that the synagogue official in our story could be so void of love that he would blindly criticize Christ rather than rejoice with the woman who was healed. And yet, when we lack love in our own hearts, isn’t it true that we can be capable of incredible blindness, coldness, and perhaps even stark cruelty toward others?

It is good for us to learn from such sacred stories as this one. They are given for our salvation and to guard us against many terrible sins including religious hypocrisy. May God help us all to seek sincere love with a pure and humble heart.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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