Jayma Anne Montgomery
My pastor doesn’t shy away from tackling tough or weighty matters in his sermons. This past Sunday was no different as he zeroed in on authenticity. What does it mean to be GOD's authentic workmanship; a true representation of His artistry and goodness? I don’t have a concise definition for you, but sometimes the best way to understand something is to contrast it with its opposite. Therefore, I’m going to talk about hypocrisy.
You can’t broach the topic of church without someone bringing up that word. How has an adjective with such negative connotations made such a comfortable place for itself in our churches and why does it appear to be so widespread? No one is born a hypocrite and certainly, no one stands in front of their class on career day in elementary school and says they want to be a hypocrite when they grow up. It’s a learned behavior and the church is, unfortunately, a known perpetrator. One of the top reasons that people tell me they don’t go to church or have no interest in the Christian faith is that they believe all or at least most Christians are hypocrites. This widespread perception didn’t materialize out of thin air but it’s certainly not a universal truth. Let’s first look back at the origins of the word.
The word 'hypocrite' comes from the Greek word ‘hypokrites’ which means actor or stage-player. It was in no way meant as an insult in its original context. However, Jesus was known for cleverly repurposing words and phrases. When he chose to use the word 'hypocrite' it was in a derogatory way; a way of calling out the religious leaders for merely playing the role of holy men while actually practicing corruption. We tend to be very hard on the religious leaders partly because we are widely removed from the historical and cultural context and also because Jesus repeatedly was very hard on them. It’s easy to discount that these were highly respected and intelligent Jewish leaders who preserved the temple, cherished customs/traditions, as well as the holy scriptures that we now know as the Old Testament. Most of us have not committed entire books of the Bible to memory nor do we lead lives as immersed in ritualistic discipline as these individuals did from birth until death. Jewish identity governed the very fabric and rhythm of their day-to-day lives. Modern Christians should take care when leveling criticism at them since, by comparison, we are held to much less rigid standards.
This is how I imagine that things may have degraded among these leaders over time. The Israelites were faithfully handed down this narrative of being GOD's chosen people through whom He would bless all nations. The Levites were revered as the tribe of priests replete with financial provisions and comfortable lives of rigorous study and temple duties as opposed to a more typical life of manual labor. As the chosen among GOD's chosen people, it was likely very easy to become arrogant, entitled, and to believe they were superior to the other Israelites. It was no stretch to regard a non-Jew as a dog, particularly since the law forbade them from even eating together. The religious leaders were able to secure power, prestigious positions, and wealth for themselves, particularly under Roman occupation. When Jesus came onto the scene and did not fulfill their expectations of the prophesied Messiah, they rejected him. When he went further to claim He was the son of GOD and publicly disgraced them as hypocrites, he marked himself as their enemy.
It is interesting to note that Jesus actually instructed the people to obey the teachings of the Pharisees (Matt 23: 2-7). Their teachings consisted of sound doctrine but their lives did not reflect the things they taught. How much does this ring true today for so many? This leaves me wondering if this way of life was entirely one of empty rituals and meaningless words for some of them but they thoroughly enjoyed the prestige and the perks that came with it. Others, perhaps, loved the prayers, rituals, and traditions to the point of idolatry and had lost sight of the God all of those things were meant to lead them closer to.
I could talk about the false teachers, megachurch pastor scandals, abuse cover-ups, and political idolatry that is running rampant in the American church right now but I’m not going to. Our past failings are just as damning if not even more than our present ones. From the first echoes of Rev John Winthrop's sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630 declaring it 'the city upon a hill,' America has been steeped in Christian language, symbols, and rituals. In this famous sermon, he charged the colony with being the new Israel, meant to be a beacon of light, truth, and charity for all the world to see. Sadly, we would go on to pillage and displace the Native Americans on whom we had once depended for survival. Our founding fathers would go on to frame the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, revolutionary documents trumpeting the equal worth of all human beings and their GOD-given rights. Most of the framers were leaders in their local churches and utilized Biblical illustrations in their speeches and writings. But nearly all of them were wealthy slave owners and did not believe that people of African descent were the same brand of human as white people. The Bible, GOD's holy library meant to encourage, shape, and train His people, was distorted and willfully misinterpreted to send a message validating slavery. Generations of family wealth were built for Caucasians for more than three-hundred years from the blood, sweat, and labor of dark-skinned humans denied dignity and citizenship by people who called themselves Christians. Immigrants were dumped into unsanitary tenements and subject to inhumane working conditions, dying in staggering numbers from disease and work-related injuries. One might argue that worst things happen in other countries. That may be true but I doubt GOD sees it that way. The point is that atrocities on this scale have no place in a supposedly Christian place.
Despite the endless crosses on display, the prayer that was in schools, and the ten commandments displayed in public spaces the legacy of this country betrays an intense disdain and cruelty towards dark-skinned people, immigrants, and the poor. We cannot call ourselves good or virtuous and certainly not righteous in the eyes of GOD. Rather than insisting on looking at our country with our eyes partially closed, why not open them wide and call ourselves what we are…a pluralistic society with people of vastly different ethnicities, cultures, religions, values, and politics. Let’s peel off the ‘Christian’ label, which barely has any adhesive remaining on it anyway, and move forward with the truth. No, we are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of many religions of which heterogeneous expressions of Christianity remain dominant. The Christian church in America is immensely wealthy and powerful. If we would stop vying so hard to cling to those things, we would realize the incredible good we could do for the millions of marginalized, unrepresented people in this country. There would be no need for government-run nursing homes, group homes, foster care, or homeless shelters because the Christians would be the ones caring for those people, without a second thought about who is deserving of our help or not.
I can’t help but think that if Jesus came and walked our streets and neighborhoods today in His glorified body, He would be beside Himself with anguish. I think He would judge us largely as a nation of hypocrites. I think He would gaze at the massive wealth disparities and opulent lifestyles on one end of the spectrum and the massive poverty, crime, elder abuse, neglect of the institutionalized, and the wrongfully imprisoned on the other end and deem us 'white-washed tombs, filled with dead men’s bones and every unclean thing.' Gravestones can be breathtakingly beautiful, but underneath them are always death and decay. I don’t want my life to amount to just a beautiful-looking gravestone.
When most people look at me, they think the masterpiece is my medical career, my beautiful family, and my comfortable middle-class life. These things are certainly valuable parts of it but are not the whole picture. The masterpiece is my testimony leading up to and beyond those things. It’s a gritty, tear-soaked, and tragic mural with some brightly colored victories in between. That’s the authenticity that I never want to hide in an effort to appear perfect or always right. And so, I wear my struggles and imperfections on my sleeve and allow the wonders that the Lord does through those things to bring Him glory. Then I trust Him for the space, opportunity, and language to retell it as only I can.
I encourage you to really meditate on Jesus’s words in Matthew 23. He walks through several examples of how they have been unfaithful to their offices as religious leaders. His words really sting but they are instructive and full of life. He isn’t angry at them because they are important and successful. He is angry at them because they have allowed their positions and power to take the place in their hearts that only GOD should occupy. They knew about him but they didn’t know Him. Their confidence in their own knowledge and authority is what ultimately condemned them. The Christian life isn’t about pageantry or pretense and the LORD takes those offenses very seriously. If you can’t walk in sincerity, it’s better to just sit down.