Of all of the evils that Jesus confronted one of the greatest was the evil of hypocrisy. His strongest language was directed at hypocrites; they provoked his greatest anger. Furthermore, the greatest damage to our Church, at least during my time as a priest, has been the sexual abuse scandal, and the cloud of hypocrisy that has surrounded it.
In the first reading for this 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear fearful words from the prophet Malachi (1:14-2:2,8-10), thunderous words coming from one of God’s most famous prophets, words directly targeting priests:
A great King am I, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations. And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse. You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; you have made void the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts. I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways…
Catholicism down through the centuries has at times been called “the sinners Church.” The charge was intended to be derogatory. But to me it is a compliment. Did not God our Father in heaven send His Son to us not to condemn us but to save us? Who better to be in our Church than sinners? They are the object of God’s saving and redeeming love. I cannot help but notice here that Jesus had little trouble with sinners but had His greatest troubles with the religious leaders of His day, religious leaders who were hypocrites.
Jesus did not mince words when it came to religious hypocrisy. St. Matthew reports Him declaring: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness (Matthew 23:27). That, more than anything else, is what got Him killed. His death was a staged by hypocritical religious leaders who Our Blessed Lord exposed to the people under their authority.
Hypocrisy isn’t found just among clergy. Public figures are often skewered with the indictment. In a recent public debate between presidential hopefuls, one held in Las Vegas, one candidate charged another with having “the heighth of hypocrisy” thus provoking a rather testy exchange.
Some former Catholics have proclaimed that they don’t come to church anymore because it’s filled with people who think they are holy but live in unholy ways in their ordinary, everyday lives. They’re religious on Sunday but do not live religious lives Monday through Saturday. We need to also recognize that many who accuse others of hypocrisy are themselves guilty of it.
Christians are easily charged with hypocrisy. The standards set for us are so high that none of us can live up to them – unless we turn to God for help. Which is the whole point, isn’t it?
What, then, are we to do? The first thing we must do is to admit that there is a tremendous gap between what we are and what we ought to be. We need first, above all else, recognize the truth about ourselves and then, asking for God’s mercy, set about amending our lives.
In the seventh chapter of his Gospel, Matthew reports Jesus as warning us: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
It seems to me that there is only one difference between a saint and a sinner, and it’s this: The saint keeps on trying. The saint humbly admits that God alone is holy and that we all fall far short of God’s infinite holiness. The saint tries to be sincere, tried to not wear a mask, tries not to be pretentious. The saint tries to walk the Christian walk and not simply talk the Christian talk. The saint reverses an old saying, turns it around to say this: Do as I do, not just as I say.
Ask yourself this question: When have you ever heard a saintly person demand things of others that they don’t demand of themselves? The problem the Pharisees faced was that they loaded up others with heavy burdens placing impossible loads on other people’s shoulders without lifting a finger to help them. At the same time they excused themselves of many of those same obligations.
Often we hold up high expectations of others, holding them to extremely high standards in solving human problems without lifting a finger to help solve those problems ourselves. It’s good to have high ideals and high standards in how we live. We need to teach our children to have them and lead them in living out those standards and ideals. But at the same time we should realize that children are quick, very quick, to see when we are not living up to them ourselves. We need to be sure we are giving good example and living in authentic leadership free of hypocrisy. We should always propose and never impose without observing our ideals in the ways we are living. No one, it seems, has a monopoly on hypocrisy. All of us could use massive doses of sincerity and truth.
All of which brings me back to the point: Why are we here? And why do we have our children enrolled in our Religious Education programs and our parish school? Isn’t it precisely because we recognize the fact that our lives are unmanageable and in need of a Higher Power? We are here because we admit that we are addicted to patterns of behavior that are dishonest, insincere and out of order. We are here and our children are in our school and religious education programs precisely because we are making a conscious decision to turn our lives and our wills over into the care of God as we understand him. And we are asking God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves – to forgive us of our sins, and then to give us the power of His holiness, His truth, and the power of His Holy Spirit.
Yes – we are a sinners’ church. Yes, our pews are filled with people who don’t live up to the high standards and expectations God imposes upon us. And, yes, we are here to humbly confess our sins and ask God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves – to forgive us precisely because we cannot forgive ourselves.
The worldly and the secularists who surround us may mock and sneer at us for being here at Mass, and they may make fun of the Sacrament of Forgiveness and our going to confession. But at least we are trying to humbly admit that, with God’s loving and gracious help, we want to keep on trying. We haven’t given up.
Nor should we, given that cross up there and the Person who is nailed to it.
REVEREND CHARLES IRVIN, or “Father Charlie,” as he is known, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 6, 1933. He was raised and educated there, graduating from the University of Michigan’s Law School. After a brief career as an attorney he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1967. Shortly thereafter he began an eleven-year ministry at St. Mary’s Student Chapel in Ann Arbor. A rich variety of ministries followed including appointments to many advisory positions in the Church and three other pastorates. In the early 1970s he began writing columns for several Catholic newspapers in Michigan. In 1999 he was appointed founding editor of Faith magazine, published by the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. Today, the magazine serves seven dioceses.