Matthew 23:1-7, 13-14 NLT
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi…’ “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.”
Christianity has an image problem. In 1996 a study was done on the perception of Christians among those outside of Christianity and over 80% of people had a positive impression of followers of Jesus. Fast forward ten years, and a new study by the Barna group finds right about a 1/3 of people have a positive image of Christians. How did we lose, for lack of a better word, 50% market share in positivity in just 10 years?
The Barna group study in particular focused on young adult perceptions and found a large number of outsiders having negative perceptions of Christians. In fact, they found that as each new generation comes of age, less and less of them are choosing to follow Jesus. Check out these telling generational statistics: for those 61 and older, called elders, only 23% of them are outsiders to Christianity. That increases to 27% for boomers aged 42-60 years old. And the outsider number jumps to 40% for those in the 16-29 category, a combination of two generational groups, mosaics (born after 1984) and busters (born between 1965-1983).
These stats tell us something has changed in the youngest generations in their perceptions of Christianity. Whether they are true or not (we will explore this semester), perception is reality for these folks and it is worth our time to explore why they have such negative views of Christians. What might those negative views be? Well, when outsiders were asked to choose what words best described Christians, with both good and bad options, here is what they chose, all negative: anti-homosexual 91%, judgmental 87%, hypocritical 85%, old-fashioned 78%, too political 75%, out of touch with reality 72%, insensitive to others 70%, boring 68%, not accepting of other faiths 64%, and confusing 44%.
We have become known for what we are against instead of what we are for. What about compassion, love, grace, forgiveness or service? All of that gets lost in that list on the screen. Interestingly enough when you ask young adults inside the church, their answers match; not to the same numerical degree but statistically it is there. Both those outside and inside the church perceive a problem and it is worth our time to explore what is going on.
You may very well have had conversations with friends or family about these very topics on the screen. You yourself may have been called a hypocrite, judgmental, too sheltered or whatever, for good reason or not. When a young adult Christian, an insider, can say this, it is time to take a hard look in the mirror and see what is going on: “Christians have become political, judgmental, intolerant, weak, religious, angry and without balance. Christianity has become a nice Sunday drive. Where is the living God, the Holy Spirit, an amazing Jesus, the love, the compassion, the holiness? This type of life, how I yearn for that.” Let’s take a look in the mirror and see if the first charge sticks: Christians are hypocrites.
We all know a hypocrite when we see one but surprisingly don’t always see or catch ourselves being hypocritical. There is this guy I know, let’s call him, Brad, he’s a pastor and whenever he plays board games or video games, he does whatever he can to win. Yes, that does include cheating. All’s fair in love and in victory. In fact, his wife, let’s call her Valerie, won’t even play Monopoly with him anymore because she thinks everything he does in cheating. Not all of it is. Trading property is part of the game!
Yes, that is my story. My name is Brandon and I am a hypocrite just like everyone else on the planet. We took a team of students this past weekend to Passion 2010, a worship/training conference for 18-25 year olds. 21,000 students were there in two venues. This is an image of the largest venue, Philips Arena in Atlanta. Who plays there? More people were in this arena than in the city of Mitchell.
While there, we raised money for a number of causes including things like child sponsorship, fighting modern day slavery and digging clean water wells. The students raised over a half a million dollars which is awesome but the irony or hypocrisy was not lost on them. How much did it cost to rent this arena? Or do the technology that you see in the area? Do you need a different band each time we worship together? On registration fees alone, they collected over $3 million dollars. It felt a bit hypocritical.
Interestingly, when those outside of the church say Christians are hypocritical they do not find hypocrisy the problem. They understand that we all have that inside of us, when all can be hypocritical to a degree; what they dislike about Christians is that we are not honest about. We either say with our attitudes or words that we have it all together, we have it all figured out, but our actions obviously do not convey that. Those outside the church want us to be honest, to be transparent, to be real with them and many are not seeing that.
Our Scripture this morning comes out of Matthew and Jesus is leveling some pretty serious charges against the religious folks of his day. Interestingly, as you read the Gospels you find that Jesus show grace and love and mercy to those we consider “sinners” and saved the harshest critique for the religious people of his day. Is that not the opposite of what we see today? Wouldn’t you expect a Christian to level harsh critique a friend or relative who has made some poor choices? Do you expect the Christian to show them some love and grace or something more akin to a 2×4” across the face? Unfortunately the perception is the 2×4”.
It was said about working for newspapers a hundred years ago that they have the power, among other things, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. How accurate of a statement is that for what Jesus came to do? Or what we are called to do? I think that is a pretty good mission or life statement for Christians. We are here to comfort those in pain, working through junk and to make you uncomfortable if you have become satisfied with where God has placed you. Because God always has more work to do inside each one of us than we have breath to live on this earth.
Now, when Jesus speaks these words about the hypocrisy of religious leaders, he was not in some corner, some dark alleyway in Jerusalem. He was in the Temple! He was in the Pharisees’ place of power with his disciples and a large crowd of on-lookers has arrived. This is somewhat akin to Jesus in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican telling everyone what the church is doing wrong. You can start to get a picture as to why Jesus was killed: he is threatening the established power of his day.
So what does Jesus say about the Pharisees, the religious folks of his day. He starts by saying you should listen and obey what they tell you because they are teaching from the Law of Moses. They are teaching the right things! The problem: they don’t live what they teach, they don’t practice what they preach. They don’t follow their own advice. Sound familiar? Jesus says “They crush people with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi…’ “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (Matthew 23:4-7, 13-14).
They crush people with impossible religious demands and never life a finger to help. Everything they do is for show. They don’t practice what they preach. Harsh words from Jesus that end with being blocked from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I read these words as a pastor and it is impossible for me not to look in the mirror and ask some questions: where do I fall short practicing what I preach? Do I do everything just for show? Where do I put up impossible religious demands without lifting a finger to help? Because I am certainly a hypocrite.
Today, Jesus may make the very same charges against us. We teach the right stuff, the good stuff but we don’t follow our own advice. We tell other people to be honest, to be generous, to follow purity in our relationships, to give to the poor, to help those who need a friend, and to follow Christ in all we do. We believe we have the best way to live, the most complete way to have life and life it to the full in this life and in the next. But when we tell other people about it, it comes off as judgmental, condescending, and self-righteous.
One solution is to stop holding ourselves and other Christians to standards. That’s one way to stop being a hypocrite but not the best in my book. I believe the solution is not to get rid of our standards in any of those areas but to be real, to be honest about where we struggle. Yes I strive to be honest in all things but I mess up. Yes, I try to have purity in my relationships but I don’t always get it right. Yes, I try to be generous but I still spend way too much stuff on myself. It is telling the truth about lifestyle standards but offering grace as well, just as Jesus did.
By the way, in case you were wondering, you all, we, were not hypocrites during the Christmas season. Last year, our Advent Conspiracy challenge raised $800 to give clean water wells to those who didn’t have clean water. This year the same challenge went out and you all very much stepped to the plate. We raised $2,043.22 to make a nice dent in the 1 billion people that do not have clean water. That means 2,000 people have access to clean water that didn’t before you chose to have a simpler Christmas!
So what are outsiders looking for? Christians to be honest and authentic, that even though we have standards we try to reach, we are not perfect. We do not get it right every time with our words or actions. This is what they want to see. We need to find that balance of truth, having standards, and of grace, showing forgiveness when we don’t make it. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not have it all figured out. It’s okay to be honest. You don’t have to have all your stuff together before coming to church, much less before coming to Jesus.
When people view followers of Jesus as hypocrites and as unable to have real, human relationships with them, they will find more authentic and real relationships outside the church. When I was in high school, the talk around our church was making it more like a bar, in the sense of community, in the sense of openness that can come when you have a few, but perhaps in a more healthy way. Churches today still struggle with how to create honest, authentic community where you don’t have to put on airs that you are all put together.
Interestingly enough, Jesus spend more time with the sinners than with the saints, the religious folks of his day. One author thinks he has figured out the reason why: “I think Jesus preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest with themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.”
May we be a people that strive for the standards God has set out for us in the good life but be honest with ourselves, with others, and with Christ when we fall short. May we then get up and try again. Let’s pray together…