Saturday, March 5, 2011

Specks, Logs, and Really Poor Acting

Matthew 7:1-5, 7:15-20, 7:21-23
Epiphany 8 (A)
March 6, 2011
William G. Carter

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is 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 neighbor’s eye.

Hypocrisy. We know it when we see it.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a congressman. I had to read it twice to make sure I got it right. In the midst of a debate, he stood to address the House of Representatives. Here's what he said: "Never before have I heard such ill-informed, wimpy, back-stabbing drivel as that just uttered by my respected colleague, the distinguished gentleman from Ohio."

Hypocrisy. We know it when we see it.

Maybe you heard about the church leader who was asked to speak to a Junior High Sunday School class. The teacher wanted him to talk about the positive aspects of being a Christian: how does your faith determine your business decisions, how does faith help to set your family priorities -- that sort of thing. Unfortunately the man was a bit pompous. Within a few minutes he was droning on about how wonderful he was. Some kids began to lose attention.

In an effort to keep their attention, suddenly he stopped, pointed at one kid, and said, "Do you know why people call me a Christian?" The startled teenager sat up and said, "Is it because they don't know you?"

Hypocrisy. We know what it looks like. We know what it sounds like. And we cheer when Jesus turns to teach against it. That's what Jesus is doing in the passage we heard this morning.

There are a number of independent teachings in our scripture text. Each little block of instruction could be treated separately. The thread that stitches them together is hypocrisy, that nearly fatal condition of acting like somebody you're not.

• Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye and ignore the log in your own eye?
• Beware of false prophets, who dress like sheep but are hungry as wolves.
• You will know them by the fruit they produce. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
• You say, "Lordy, Lordy," but you don't do what I tell you.

At least nineteen times, twelve of which are in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus takes on people whom he calls hypocrites. The Greek word is taken from the acting stage. "Hupocrites" are actors or actresses. They put on a show, supposedly for the benefit of others. They wear costumes and masks, so that their appearance does not reflect who they really are. There is a difference between their outward appearance on stage and who they actually are when nobody but God is looking.

According to one wry definition, hypocrites are those "who, professing virtues that they do not respect, secure the advantage of seeming to be what they despise." They appear to be something other than what they actually are.

"Let me take that speck out of your eye." Let me take care of you. Let me point something out to you. All the while they totally ignore their own inability to see clear. On the surface, it sounds like they want to care; but something else is usually going on behind the mask.

As somebody points out, this kind of hypocrisy is all the more unpleasant "because an apparent act of kindness (taking a speck of dirt from somebody's eye) is made the means of inflating our own ego." That is, it looks like you are trying to help somebody, when actually you're trying to feel better about yourself. You exalt yourself by pointing out something deficient about your neighbor. Then you try to help them in their weakness from your position of superiority. "Here," you say with transparent deference, "let me give you a hand. Let me help you get that speck out of your eye."

We know it when we see it.

Ever notice? When somebody criticizes us, the criticism usually has as much to do with them than it has to do with us. Sometimes they are flinging their baggage at you rather than carry it themselves.

A man recently went through some personal difficulties. He said, "When I went through my divorce, the people who gave me the hardest time were people who came from their own troubled households. On the other hand, the people who saved my life were those who knew what it was like to go through something like that, and they helped me come through it alive."

Jesus says: "Take the log out of your eye. And keep your grubby fingers out of other people's eyes, until you deal with your own blind spots."

It reminds me of the day when Snoopy was sitting on the roof of his dog house. Charlie Brown comes up and says, "I hear you're writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title." Snoopy replied, "I have the perfect title." Then he leaned over his typewriter and typed, "Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?"

That's the question to ask ourselves if we are ever going to get rid of the lumber yard in our own eyelashes. Jesus uses this ridiculous image to score his point. All of us have no problem turning to another person and seeing their faults. All of us have a lot of problems owning up to our own shortcomings and faults. And it's difficult to get a proper perspective.

In his commentary on Matthew, Tom Long says there are two transformations that have to occur if we are ever going to be useful to God or anybody else. First, you have to find the wrong in yourself before turning the spotlight on anybody else. You have to face what you spend your whole life avoiding about yourself. Only then, says Long, can you move from self-righteousness to compassion. The good news is that those who deal with their own blindspots can be helpful to others. Before you put on a mask and play the role of somebody superior, you take a good, long, honest look at yourself.

A number of years ago, novelist Frederick Buechner dared to tell the story of a day in his own life. He began the book by saying,

I am a part-time novelist who happens also to be a part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most I can manage to live out my faith: Christian part of the time when certain things seem real and important to me and the rest of the time not Christian in any sense that I can believe matters much to Christ or anybody else . . . From time to time I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible - a seeing, doing, telling of Christly truth - but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles at the great trough of life. Part-time novelist, Christian, pig.

His honesty is refreshing. Religious people face the endless temptation of thinking they are better than they are. Just when we think we're getting somewhere, just when we think we're actually making some spiritual progress, the truth slices like a two-edged sword. And if you don't have a sense of humor about your own foibles, you can drive yourself over the edge. One thing I've noticed about true-blue hypocrites -- they are incapable of laughing at themselves.

They ought to know better. Life has a way of unrolling so that all things are revealed. Jesus says, "Look at the results!" Good trees bear good fruit, bad trees have rotten fruit. Build a house on solid ground, and it will survive every storm. Build on a shaky foundation, and sooner or later it will fall apart.

So today we are called upon to get it together: to seek out the truth about ourselves and to trust God to do something positive with what we discover. Jesus has a lot to say to hypocrites, probably because he knows that hypocrites are the only people who can ever pay any attention to him. There isn't a person here who is anything close to what he or she professes.

Through this text, the Risen Lord calls us to move toward a unity of word and deed, a consistency of intention and accomplishment, an integrity between what is seen and what is hidden. It is so easy to mislead ourselves. One evidence of our sin is that we can construct a view of the world that ignores the obstructions of our own making.

All of us do this. God knows we are not the people that we want others to see. There is always a shadow between our intentions and our accomplishments. But God has sent Jesus Christ to save us from our own poor records of achievement. Jesus never had a log in his eye, but he was nailed to a great big piece of timber. On the cross, he has taken away every sin. In his mercy, every speck and blemish has already been removed. Thanks to Jesus, we have been freed to serve God without needing to feel inadequate. All we have to do is trust that it's true.

Along the way, we learn how to love and laugh and take ourselves a bit less seriously. Like my friend Lois. She was working on the stewardship committee in her church one year. (Actually I think she was the stewardship committee that year!) As she prepared for a congregational mailing, she noted all the people who had drifted away from the life of the church. Then she picked up the phone and began to call them. "We've been missing you in all kinds of ways. Why don't you come back next Sunday?"

She called one man and got nowhere. The next week, she called him again with the same result. The following week she tried again. Finally he said, "Don't you get it? I'm not going to that church. There are too many hypocrites in the congregation."

Lois laughed, and she said, "Yeah, you're right. We have a church full of hypocrites. And we always have room for one more." At the other end of the phone, there was shocked silence. Then the man began to laugh. The next week he was sitting in a pew. After that, he was back almost every Sunday. Most of the time he had a smile on his face.

That's a picture of the gospel working itself out through us. None of us measure up to the righteousness of God, but all of us are held up by the mercy of God. And each one of us must work through that mercy, admitting the moments when we could not see, when we did not act, when we turned out to be something less than we were created to be. This morning Jesus is saying, in effect, "Before you point any fingers at anybody else, first take a long look in the mirror. Stand there and keep looking, until you know that you stand only by the grace and good humor of God." Only then are you of any use to others.

So give it up. Cut out your criticism of others and be humble. Stop reading other peoples' situations through your lens, and start paying attention to the places where your own life has gone out of focus. Refuse to stand on the shifting sands of self-affirmation. Stand firm, instead, on Christ the Rock, who has enough mercy and forgiveness for all of us hypocrites.

It reminds me of a beatitude. I don’t know if Jesus ever said it, but it’s the kind of beatitude that he should have said if he didn’t. The beatitude goes like this: blessed are you when you can laugh at yourself, for your laughter is God's opportunity.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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