mark warns us explicitly about religious leaders who use their authority for notoriety and abuse of the vulnerable that the Gospel and the whole witness of Scripture heeds us to care for and protect. In fact, one commentator remarks that the use of the commas makes it look like all Pharisees are guilty of walking in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogue and devour widows’ houses. Rather, the text should be read as beware of those particular scribes who are guilty of walking in long robes and have the best seats in the synagogues and devour widows’ houses. I believe this is an important distinction as this reading indicates that not all the religious leaders behaved in that way. But for those religious leaders who did behave in this way, Jesus has a sharp condemnation. However, when we read this passage without those commas, it also reminds us that the scribes are not those people over there, very far removed, from us. Rather, the passage reminds us that any one of us can slip into the habit of wearing long robes and devouring widows’ homes in the name of our faith. Any of us can slip into the habit of being hypocrites.
And yet, I think there is a distinction between the broad strokes of hypocrisy and the specific type of religious hypocrisy that Jesus is referencing here. None of us can live in this society without a degree of hypocrisy. Do you care about children in developing countries? Yes, well do you wear clothes made from Old Navy in a sweat shop? Do you care about a sustainable environment? Do you drive a car to work?Some may call this hypocrisy or another word for this would be structural sin. Any human being, and any Christian for that matter, needs to have a robust understanding of sin. If we know that in addition to sins that we commit as a matter of our ongoing and repeated failure to be at unity with God, we also all live with the reality of structural sin. Structural sin is a part of the sin that we participate in by virtue of our existence. And, as Christians one way we contend with that reality is by realizing our need for God. Our whole baptismal liturgy recognizes that we must drown to self, so that we can reborn into God’s redeeming love. And by participating in a faithful vision of the church, we live with the reality that we need ongoing redemption for the brokenness of this world and this creation.
Jesus has very harsh words for religious leaders who misuse and abuse their power. As he should. But, his words are also meant to remind us that the church we proclaim is fundamentally here to restore all people to unity with God and each other. The hypocrisy my friends have referenced is really minor when compared to missing the boat for our life with God. It used to be that belonging to a church like the Church of the Redeemer was a prerequisite for status in the Main Line; it went hand in hand with membership at places like the Cricket Club. And certainly there were people who treated the church like an institution that would propel them and their bloodlines into the market place where they could wear long robes and devour widows’ homes. But, those days, according to Pew Religion reports are largely over. So, as we lament the loss of our prestige and our cultural authority in the present age, we are graced with great opportunities.
I think that we are given opportunities to proclaim as an authentic faith as we can. People are learning that coming to church is not about clinging to a code of conduct, but learning how to develop a particular fidelity to God within a community. People are learning that coming to church is about worshipping God in that space beyond measured time. People are learning that coming to church is about listening for God’s nudge when it comes to remembering the widowed and the orphaned.
And I found this on a blogpost written by a fellow female priest, “Church is the place we go to be reminded of who we are and how deeply we are loved, despite our life’s circumstances. There is a balm in Gilead. And it not going to be found in the noisy onslaught of life. As a child, I learned that it was to be found on a quiet cushion-less church pew. Where I heard every week that I was a sinner saved, a lost lamb found, and a broken heart comforted.”
Our Book of Common Prayer reminds us in a very profound way that the church will never be perfect. After all, Martin Luther famously said, “the church is a hospital for sinners.” But even without perfection the church can be a place of solace, hope, and joy. We do not have to prove we are not hypocrites. Rather, we are reminded that in worship and prayer, we sinners become shaped into God’s holy people.
Many of you know this prayer gem from the Daily Office:
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…
The religious authorities of Jesus’ time were great with lip-service. God calls us, through the church, to transform the words of our lips into the meaningful work of our lives now and into the ages of ages.