Struggling with Hypocrisy

Ordinary 25 : 18 September 2016  : Amos 8:4-7 , Psalm 113 , 1 Timothy 2:1-7 , Luke 16:1-13
Copyright Father James Harding, 2016

"No slave can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or cling to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth" (Luke 16:13).

Jesus leaves us in no doubt here as to what being a Christian is supposed to mean. We are supposed to give our love whole–heartedly to God, without compromise, and insofar as we have to live as exiles in a world that is not our true home, we must be as trustworthy as possible with the worldly goods and attachments that come our way. But we need to think this through carefully, because the readings from Scripture today are not straightforward, and with all the distractions that surround us we can be easily misled.

The idea of loving God whole–heartedly is at the core of the Old Testament, and Jesus regarded the commandment to love God thus as the greatest of all the commandments. To this day, it is recited by faithfully orthodox Jews as part of the Shema at the beginning and end of every day: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5). But "love" here has a very specific meaning. It is about loyalty, and this loyalty is to be expressed by obeying the commandments. These commandments that God enjoins Israel to obey are supposed to reflect the very character of God, and in particular God’s justice.

The prophets of ancient Israel called God’s people to account for disobeying the commandments, and especially for the sort of religious hypocrisy that entailed praising God with one’s lips, while contributing to the suffering of the poor with one’s life. This is what so riled Amos. It was not simply that the poor were being abused, which was bad enough. It was that they were being abused by the very people God had commanded to protect them, the very people God had commanded to make known His justice in the world. Moreover, this very people were continuing to take part in worship, which meant that they were outwardly observing the rites of the religion, while ignoring their implications of their religion for their lives.

The earliest prophecies attributed to Amos go back to the Northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE, a kingdom that had recently experienced relative peace and an increase in prosperity, both of which would shortly come to a violent end. Later editors dated the book of Amos in relation to a devastating earthquake that supposedly hit two years later, but Israel also experienced violent incursions from the army of the Assyrian empire that would shortly lead to the destruction of the kingdom and the exile of its people. The editors of the book thought that these terrible events were the fulfilment of what Amos had threatened in God’s Name, and there is no escaping the fact that for the authors of Scripture, the very character and nature of their holy God demanded that radical human wickedness be met with its just reward.

What had Amos threatened, and why? Amos threatened Israel with violent destruction at the hands of God because those in Israelite society who had been benefiting most from the health of the economy were lining their own pockets at the expense of the poor, all the while claiming loyalty to the God of Israel. Their sins were quite specific: wanting the the new moon and the Sabbath to be over so they could get back to their work with all its consequences for the poor, falsifying weights and measures so as to derive economic benefit for themselves, cheating poor buyers by selling the sweepings with the wheat, and apparently acquiring slaves for the most trivial of debts. The commandments laid down in the Torah connect quite specifically with some of the charges brought by Amos. Deuteronomy, for example, explicitly prohibits an Israelite from falsifying weights, "For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 25:13–16). Moreover, obedience to the commandments was a condition of the Israelites continuing to live in the Land they had been promised and given by God.

By tying such disobedience to a desire for the new moon and the Sabbath to be over so that the rich in Israel could get back to lining their pockets at the expense of the poor, Amos is getting to the very heart of the problem, which was that they had no real love for God. As the author of 1 John saw clearly, it is impossible genuinely to love God and to hate one’s brother or sister (1 John 4:20). Thus to act in such a way that one’s fellow Israelite was reduced to, and allowed to remain in, poverty was the clearest sign that genuine love for God was absent. So the sanctification of time to God seemed, inevitably, no more than a pointless distraction, getting in the way of the real task of getting on in life and making a tidy profit.

Psalm 113 shows very clearly how this contradicts the very character of God. When God is praised in the Psalms, there is generally some quite specific reason for God to be praised. Here it is to do with how God honours the poor: "He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with the princes of his people" (Psalm 113:7–8). It is not difficult to show how this is a theme throughout Scripture, and there is, quite clearly, a stark contrast between the perfunctory worship Amos associates with rich Israelites who trample on the poor, and the heartfelt honouring of the God who raises the poor in this psalm. Yet I find myself wondering whether there maybe be an added level of hypocrisy here, one that confronts us as much as it once confronted them: what if the abuse of the poor was committed by richer merchants and landowners who used psalms with words exactly like this one at their festivals, oblivious to the disconnect between their words, the hearts, and the lives?

The character of the God of the prophet Amos and the Psalms is exactly the character of God revealed in the teaching and life of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Luke 16:1–13 is one of the most difficult of passages in the Gospels, because it is so unclear what we are supposed to make of the unrighteous manager. Are we supposed to see someone who behaves like this as some sort of model for discipleship? If so, how on earth could the analogy possibly work? That there is some analogy between the unjust manager and the true disciple is clear from words at the end of the parable: "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth [literally, "the mammon of unrighteousness"] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes [literally, "tabernacles" or "tents"]" (Luke 16:9). But what is it?

The teaching of this section of Luke as a whole is not so unclear, because it is all to do with how people treat people who are less well off than they are, how our hearts are supposed to be directed to what is truly of value, and how the fate of the righteous and the wicked in the judgement of God is supposed to determine how we behave now. After all, just a few verses later we read the important story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). So let’s work backwards from the end of the Gospel teaching and try and work out what the beginning means.

In verses 14–15, immediately after the end of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is scoffed at by some Pharisees who had overheard his teaching. Luke himself calls them "lovers of money" (f?????????), a not uncommon insult in Greek and Roman literature; Jesus responds to them by accusing them of self–righteousness, and tells them in no uncertain terms that God knows their hearts and, in a strong echo of a passage I mentioned earlier from Deuteronomy, that what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. It is in light of this that we should read the parable of the unrighteous manager. He is a model for us, but only in a very restricted sense: he is dishonest, but he is shrewd, and finds a clever way to deal with the situation he finds himself in. He exemplified "the children of this age," who are shrewder than "the children of light"—that is, followers of Jesus—in dealing with the realities of life in this generation. Those followers of Jesus are called to follow his example in making friends for themselves by the means at their disposal so that in the end, they can be welcomed into God’s kingdom.

What this does not mean is taking his shonky business practices as a model. The point of connection with the teaching of the Gospel on discipleship is that we have to find a way of living in an essentially unrighteous world with our eyes firmly fixed on the kingdom of God and its strange, upside–down values, in which the downtrodden sit in the seat of princes and the barren woman bears children, in the words of the psalm.

The world we live is precisely a world of unrighteousness, whose condition has never been more precisely diagnosed than in the envy, violence, and lack of grace of the story of Cain and Abel. There is nothing we do, no sphere of our lives, that is not somehow implicated in, and soiled by, the violence and injustice of the world we are living in. We do not have to think for too long about where most of our clothes come from, how our food gets to our tables, about the cars we drive to Church, the planes in which we fly to see our families, the cell phones with which we speak to those whom we love to realise just how mired we are in level after level of sadness and sin. Some of this we can deal with in some small ways, for in our society at least we do have some such choices, but we cannot remain entirely unsoiled. The challenge is this: how do we use the means at our disposal to share the love and generosity of God to those who need it, with our eyes firmly fixed on the God who looks deeply into our hearts and knows what truly motivates us? How can we have the grace to allow this God, who desires nothing more than our salvation and the salvation of everyone we meet, to transform us moment by moment into the likeness of Christ, the very image of the invisible God?

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