Matthew 21: 23-32
Have you heard people say, “I don’t go to church. They’re all a bunch of hypocrites there.” A hypocrite is someone who acts the part he or she is trying to play, in this case, a Christian. On Greek stages “hypocrites” were actors, playing a part; putting on a mask. Jesus called the chief priests and pharisees “hypocrites.” Might Jesus call any of us “hypocrites?” Might he call some religious leaders of our day, and some political leaders, “hypocrites?” It is a horrible term; it means you are a person of no integrity unless you are playing a part on stage. It means that both children and adults can see that your actions don’t match your words. It is like recognizing a liar. Those who best determine those who are hypocrites are those who watch them. We become frauds when we say one thing but do another. For example, Jesus gave his followers this imperative: “feed the hungry,” yet some Christians don’t. Or at least not in ways that outsiders can see! Don Hughes, one of the early directors of Halifax Urban Ministries, taught me to try to feed hungry people through feeding programs where there is a centralized check on a person’s visits. Before HUM, our Port Orange/ Daytona Beach Shores churches had an unofficial phone tree, where secretaries would call neighboring churches if a person or family stopped by for help. “Oh, they’ve been here” one church replied. “We already helped them,” another replied. “You did?” we would reply. “They said they hadn’t gotten any help!” Likewise, I once saw a man standing at the exit of a shopping center with a sign saying “Help! Homeless; in need.” But as I watched, something startled him; maybe a police officer. he folded his cardboard sign, walked a block away to a decent car, and drove away. These are examples of why we don’t just hand food out of car windows. Still, we try not to be hypocrites; we try to see that our money goes as far as it can. Last week we had to cancel our food drive due to a Nor’easter of wind and rain, but Mary Ann and I are still holding on to $20 worth of food we will be offering; others are holding their food for our next drive too. It has been said that we can set a better example with our life than with our lips. People watch what we do. Words flow freely in an election year. Watch the actions of political figures, then see if they line up with their words. Otherwise, there are hypocrites in our midst. Mark Twain once said, “Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed, and often, and for the same reasons.” Quite a satirist! Twain also said, “It’s not the things in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the things I do understand.” This parable bothers people. Pharisees had fallen into the trap of not acknowledging Jesus’ authority. “They correctly identify which son does what his father wants, then they are denounced for playing the role of the disobedient son. As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing.” [Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993, p. 247] They had heard about John the Baptist, yet they rejected his authority. It seems that even prostitutes and tax collectors changed their minds about God when they heard John. John cried out for repentance. The Pharisees, in so many words, said whenever they decided that they needed to repent, they would. John said the time is now. They said they didn’t think so. Known sinners were ashamed to face God; but when the Word was preached in just the right way, on just the right day, they did repent and come to God. Jesus’ wake-up call can startle us! We need to not only talk, talk, talk; we need to walk, walk, walk. How are we doing? Let’s consider that message today.
First, most people in churches believe Jesus was sent to save the world. A smaller number live their lives as if he is they personal Savior too. Everyone who has joined a church should have answered a question like I ask: “Who is your Lord and Savior?” If he is, the Christian responds “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” The shortest and perhaps oldest Christian declaration was “Jesus is Lord.” 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Romans 10:9. Will someone know you are a Christian without hearing you say it? Will they know you are a Christian by your love? We have to dispel the “hypocrite” label! Let your actions speak louder than your words. Let them see Christ in you.
Second, keep promises. Some make promises to God and some make them to others. Keeping promises is what God does; do that God thing too. In this political season, wouldn’t it be wonderful to choose a candidate whose positions you support, but also one who keeps his, or her promises? That’s a sign of integrity. Today’s parable reminds us of people who say one thing but do another. That happens in families too. Do we want children who A) Say they will do a chore but then do not do it; B) say they won’t do a chore and do it; or C) say they’ll do a chore and actually do it! Did you notice we didn’t get to pick child C in Jesus’ parable? We could only pick from child A and child B! We got to pick between two who were not our first choice! In both cases in the parable there is incongruity between what the son says and what the son does. Which is most like you? Type A? Type B? Or, dare I ask: Type C? If you know the right answer but are not living the right answer, Jesus whispers “tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom before you.” It is better to know you are living wrong and respond with ways to live right. And it is best to know what is right, and then to do it. That’s the gold standard. In Antioch, according to Acts 11: 26, followers of “The Way” were first called “Christians.” We can either carry on the great tradition, or we can turn it into hollow examples.
If we promise to provide oversight to young children as they grow in faith, and then we don’t follow through, get ready for the label: hypocrite. But if you provide good oversight, get ready for a different label: mentor. If you say you will attend a sports or music event or play for a child or grandchild, and then you don’t, they will never forget your absence. Your promise begins to mean nothing. My grandsons have learned they can count on what I say, but if I get their attention and say, “I promise,” they know they especially know. Leaders gain respect by keeping promises.
If you take today’s parable out of context, you may dismiss it, saying that neither son did the will of his father. But remember not to take these parables flat-footed. What if we replace the first son with the tax collectors and harlots? They did not respond to God’s call for faithfulness at first, but later they did, and they went. At first they said “I will not go” but later, they repented and went. That’s the key; sometimes we just need to repent and go for God! But the Pharisees said they would serve the Lord, yet they got sidetracked with the laws and the trappings of their religion. Ironically, they correctly named the “son” who did the will of the father: the first son, yet they were not doing what the first son did. The measure of a man—or a woman—is staying on track with what we promise. If we do not, children do not trust us, and adults call us “hypocrite.” Even a “hypocrite” can still call us that name; it may seem unfair, but Christians are held to a higher standard. Some people believe that any good person can get into heaven. But if we are Christian and claim that right, we are on display constantly. We are walking billboards for Christ.
Let me close with these words of encouragement that I heard years ago:
I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
And what I ought to do, I will do, by the grace and strength of God.
Be honest; say what you mean; mean what you say; do what you say you will do. Actions speak louder than words, but words, supported by actions, speak volumes.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 27, 2020