The gospel this evening is about religious hypocrisy. My reflections are about why it’s a very good idea not to be a hypocrite—actually, why I think it’s an extremely good idea not to be a religious hypocrite. I’ll get to that, but after a little ramble through the theological countryside.
I was sorting through old stuff the other day trying to get rid of some of the clutter in my life and I came across a note from one of my seminary professors. All it said was: “in theology everything is preliminary”. He had graded one of my papers; I had then sent him a note saying that it had all seemed so “preliminary”. His response: “in theology everything is preliminary”. I’ve kept that scrap of paper as an important reminder. When we attempt to speak of the things of God, it is all so preliminary.
Any talk about God attempts to reach beyond what we know to that which we do not know. We can only reach toward the unknown in terms of the known. And so talk about God is characterized by figures of speech, metaphor, parables: using images of what is familiar to reach toward that which is beyond us. The remarkable thing is that we have this inclination to reach beyond at all.
In the gospel Jesus rails at religious hypocrites, those who make a show of religious observance, “but their hearts are far” from God. Their inner disposition and outward behavior are not in sync. We recoil in disgust at religious hypocrisy—unless it’s our own (we’re all compromised in the practice of our faith; all fall short, even if in relatively harmless ways—it takes a campaign for election to high office for hypocrisy to reach lurid heights.)
But rather than launch my own livid tirade against religious hypocrisy (which might be fun, even if a little hypocritical), I’d like to advocate for its opposite. I’m not sure what to call the opposite of religious hypocrisy—religious integrity perhaps? Religious integrity would be not only talking the talk, but walking the walk; practicing what we preach. Our words and actions in sync with the heart.
Speaking in terms of “the heart,” is, of course, one of those figures of speech we use in religious talk. We use it so often and so glibly we forget it’s a metaphor. We don’t really mean the muscle in our chest that pumps blood. What we really mean is—well, you know, the heart! It’s difficult to come up with a good “plain speech” translation. Our interiority? Our center? When we talk about “the heart” in a religious context, we’re using a familiar image to try to grasp something we don’t yet understand.
The heart muscle has a location in space—we know exactly where it is. The “heart”, spiritually speaking is—well, where is it? Somewhere inside, maybe in our heads, maybe in our torso, maybe all over? Somewhere within us, but we don’t know quite where. Although we don’t know quite where the heart is, nevertheless the heart is what Jesus is concerned about here in the gospel. We could say the heart is “within” us. But I think the heart is beyond within. I’m not sure what that means: beyond within. But I think that’s where the heart is. I think we find the heart if we go to the center, wherever that is, and then keep on going. Or, maybe we go to everywhere and nowhere and then keep on going.
Wherever the heart is, the heart is what Jesus is concerned about because that’s where he is. As John’s gospel puts it, everything and everyone were created by him and through him and for him and he is the life and light of all people. He is present in all creation and, therefore, in all people. John’s gospel also calls him the Word that became flesh, “full of grace and truth”. The law was given through Moses, he says, but through Christ grace and truth come into the world. [John 1:1-18]
Recognized or not, named or not, Christ is present in every human “heart.” He is “tabernacled” among us. Christ being present, every human heart enshrines some impulse to embody, to incarnate “grace and truth”. Recognized or not, actualized or not, thwarted or not, the impulse is there. In us and through us, Christ desires to embody, to incarnate yet again, “grace and truth.” The Christ within us is a fundamental component of our being, yet often unexpressed, and not embodied. We are very imperfect vehicles for the embodiment of Divine Grace. Sometimes by our own fault, often by God’s crazy man design, we’re all driving around on at least one flat tire and with missing or malfunctioning parts.
Broken as we are—and some are very broken indeed—the impulse is still there, Christ’s desire to incarnate grace and truth are still there. One of the functions of religion is to help us make the link between this inner reality and outward behavior. Our life’s work as Christians is religious integrity. Inner and outer in sync, integral to each other. Animated by Christ’s love, our words and actions embodying grace and truth in ever-more-generous ways. Incarnating the grace and truth of Christ in ever-more-generous ways.
Why is Jesus so incensed about religious hypocrisy? He could otherwise be quite patient with human frailty. I think because it represents a missed opportunity. What Christ desires most for human beings is that they have life and have it abundantly. And we’re most alive when the deepest impulses of the human heart are actually embodied, incarnated in our lives. When Christ’s grace and truth are indeed manifest in us–that is when we are most alive. The religious hypocrite fiddles around at the mouth of the well, but refuses to drink of the living water—using the bucket and apparatus not to drink, but in the pursuit of personal status or wealth or high office.
So this is my point: The best reason for not being a hypocrite is that we are more alive when the grace and truth of Christ in our hearts is indeed manifest, embodied, incarnated in our lives. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly. [John 10:10] And, as Irenaeus famously put it, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.”
Now here’s a mysterious thing about Christ being in our hearts, animating us with his love: there are many human hearts—millions, billions. But there is only one Christ. There is only one, indivisible Christ—Christ is not divvied up among us, a little here, a little there. The Christ in your heart is the same Christ as in my heart. The impulse to incarnate grace and truth is the very same impulse in every human breast. We grasp this in only a very preliminary way. “Now we see in a glass darkly…now we know only in part”, as Paul put it [1 Cor. 13:12]. The professor was right: in theology, everything is preliminary.
One light, one flame, one breath of life, one fountain of living water, one Word of grace and truth incarnate: yet many hearts. Wherever hearts are. Go to the center and keep on going; go to everywhere and nowhere and keep on going…
“Grant us thy truth to make us free, and kindling hearts that burn for thee, till all thy living altars claim one holy light, one heavenly flame.” [Hymnal 1982, #419; words by Oliver Wendell Holmes]
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