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Thought for the week - 23 October

Church leaders are often confronted by those who assert that they don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites. There is the temptation to reply with the retort that there is always room for one more. A better approach may be to refer them to today’s gospel reading, which addresses hypocrisy in its various forms in a more subtle way.

We are asked to compare the devout Pharisee with the sinful tax collector. Both are to be found praying in the temple. The devout Pharisee thanks God for making him virtuous, and especially, for not being like the tax collector beside him. The tax collector simply prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner”.

The Pharisee obviously believes that the tax collector is the hypocrite, while he himself is virtuous. The Pharisee is a virtuous man. His religious practice is not like some Pharisees: an empty sham for people who lie and cheat just as much as worst sinner. They are the most obvious kind of hypocrite. But this Pharisee is not grasping, unjust or adulterous like the rest of humanity. He fasts far more often than is expected. He pays a tithe on everything he gets, rather than just the norm. He is undoubtedly a virtuous man, and he feels that he has every right to be in the temple, thanking God for making him so virtuous.

The reader though is encouraged to see the pharisee’s hypocrisy. He prides himself on his virtue, or as Jesus says, he exalts himself. He compares himself with the sinful tax collector and thinks that he is better. Thinking that he is worthy to be in the temple, while the tax-collector is not, is what makes the Pharisee a hypocrite; one who will be humbled according to Jesus.

The Pharisee, though, is not necessarily wrong in thinking that the tax collector is a hypocrite; praying in the temple while his day to day activities undermine Judaism. In Jesus’s time, the tax collector is the epitome of evil. Tax collectors are the most obvious of the collaborators with the Roman occupation. Judaism was a way of life as much as a religion, and tax collectors, by helping impose the Roman system were undermining the Jewish way of life and therefore the Jewish religion itself.

So, the devout Pharisee seeing this tax collector in the temple asks himself how he could dare be there. How could he come to pray in the very temple of the religion that in the outside world he is trying to undermine. Surely the tax collector must be a complete hypocrite. And the tax collector must be aware of his unworthiness, because he does not dare raise his eyes towards heaven.

So, we seem to have a Temple that is full of hypocrites: those who go through religious practice but have no virtue; those like the virtuous Pharisee who can see no virtue in others; and the tax collector who undermines the religion he practices.

And, as its critics point out, today’s church contains the same kind of people, the same kind of hypocrites. No wonder there are those who stay away from the church on the grounds that it is full of hypocrites. Perhaps the only place where we will not find hypocrites is outside the church. It is likely though, that hypocrisy is more pervasive still.

As the retort that there is always room for one more hypocrite suggests, not acknowledging your own hypocrisy is just another hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is something we all try to avoid, but that we all fall into in some sense. And that is true whether we go church or not. We can all probably recognise ourselves in the characters discussed, probably in more than one.

There will be times when we think that we go through the show of religious practise, but then fail to practise the virtues: times when we feel very pleased with ourselves, and look down at others; times when we feel conscious of our short comings, and that we are not worthy to come to church; and times when we feel let down by others in the church, and that is a waste of time going.

If we fall into one or more of these, then we fall into hypocrisy. In which case, the gospel tells us we should be like the tax-collector. Jesus does not say that the Tax-collector is a virtuous man. Jesus does not say that the tax collector is not a hypocrite in his own way. What is good about the tax collector, according to Jesus, is that he admits his faults and his hypocrisy, he is humble, and asks God for mercy. This is what Jesus asks of us all, whether we are in church today or not. Instead of concerning ourselves with what others do, we should acknowledge our faults, and ask for mercy.


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