Jesus’ Anger vs. False Worship and Hypocrisy

[Homily.  Live-streamed Mass.  August 26, 2020.]

Jesus is angry in today’s Gospel.  It is important for us to understand why.  Jesus focused his public ministry on preaching the Kingdom of God, on leading people to recognize the goodness and compassion of his Father.  He taught people to pray to him as “our Father,” to pray for the coming of his Kingdom, to ask that his will be done on earth as in heaven.  If people came to encounter his Father in his holiness, as Abraham,[1] Moses,[2] Elijah[3] and the prophets[4] did, they would open themselves to his reign, worship him and obey him in truth.  This is why Jesus’ anger was so intense when he saw the Temple, the House of his Father where the Holy of Holies dwelled, desecrated, reduced to a den of thieves. John’s Gospel says, “He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.  He made a whip out of cords and drove them out of the temple area, with the sheep and the oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, ‘take these out of here and stop making my Father’s House a marketplace!’” (Jn. 2:14-16).

Jesus’ tongue lashing against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 expresses even more anger.  Our Gospel reading for today is but an excerpt of his angry diatribe: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites, you are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth!  Even so on the outside, you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.  … Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees …  you are children of those who murdered the prophets!” (Mt. 23:27-32).

We know anger is not a vice when justified.  What justified Jesus’ anger both in repossessing the Temple and in opposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees was his zeal for the Kingdom of his Father.  The temple had become scandalous.  Worship for many had become external compliance with rituals; the sacrifices of goats and pigeons which supported these rituals were not pleasing to his Father.[5]

So too, the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees was an offense against the Kingdom of God.  A hypocrite is one who pretends to be what he really is not; feigns to believe what she really does not.  A hypocrite is one whose behavior contradicts what one claims to really believe.  The scribes and Pharisees presented themselves as guides for people to find God; supposedly, their own lived relationship with God formed by their superior knowledge of the law and of God’s saving interventions in history would help them guide people to God; supposedly, their own reflection over the covenants forged between God and his people would help guide people to a relationship with God based on a deep appreciation of God’s fidelity and help them encounter his Face (Ps 67:2); supposedly their own prayer would help people pray, “O God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you.  … For your love is better than life” (Ps 63:1-4).  But in reality, their relationship with God was hollow toxic plastic.  Instead of bringing people to God, they misled them, converting them to be like themselves, petty, shallow, fake.  Instead of strengthening people’s faith in God, they trivialized it.  Instead of pointing to what was important – justice, mercy, and faithfulness – they concerned themselves with petty tithes.  “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Mt. 23:24).  Instead of leading people to humility and surrender to God’s compassion, they fabricated a system of oaths and ritual compliance that led to self-satisfaction and pride.  Instead of being for the people true light enlightened by the Face of God and enriched by loving him above all things, treating others with “a pure heart and with clean hands” and acknowledging his ruling presence in all his creation” (Ps 24:1-4), they were but “whitened sepulchers full of dead men’s bones.”  They were all a show of piety and holiness; inside them, there was pride, pettiness, selfishness, greed, self-advancing manipulation of God and his people, hatred, and sin.  From this interior rot, they led people astray.  That is why Jesus was so angry with them.

As we easily find irritation, if not anger, at the scribes and the Pharisees who eventually plotted to put Jesus to death – because he challenged their social position, their way of life, and their income – we are today invited to consider that hypocrisy is a malady to which we are all vulnerable.  We are all tempted to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers  – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get,” rather than beat our breasts and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (cf. Lk 18:9-14).  The Lord calls us to perfection, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Mt 5:48), but this is not something that we achieve on our own – nor without the Father’s purification.  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit  … Without me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:1-10), he taught.

While he called woe on the hypocrites, he wished blessedness, happiness, on those who lived as they professed, behaved as they believed, no matter how much misunderstanding and suffering this would cost them in life.  “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”[6] he said.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. …  Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. … Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (cf. Mt 5:1-11).  Blessed are those who in encountering the evils of today’s world so hope in God that they can endure the worst of evils and yet find humor in life.  “All this I have told you that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete”  (Jn 15:11). [7]

One who is not a hypocrite is today’s much sought after man or woman of integrity, the man or woman true to his or her word.  If you’re interested in a wonderful example of this, I invite you to consider Pope Francis; go to Netflix and watch “Pope Francis, A Man of His Word”.   Francis says he cares for our common home, he says he cares for the poor marginalized in our society and discarded, he says he does not judge gays and lesbians in their love for each other, he says he truly respects people of other faiths as sisters and brothers in God’s loving creation, he says all these things and he means it:  his life is one with his word.  His battling injustice, suffering, and adversity daily is so consistent with his Hope that he can find humor in the unfolding of each day and smile constantly before God’s face shining on him.[8]  When I watched this documentary I cried, praising God for the man of integrity Francis is, and praying God for the Christian I have yet to be.

 


[1] Cf. God Covenant with Abram: Gen 13:1-21.

[2] Cf. Exodus 3:1-12 and “…if they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what am I to ell them?’ God replied, ‘I am who am.’ Then he added, ‘This is what you shall tell the Israelites, ‘I AM sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3: 13b-14).  The name of God was so sacred it was not to be pronounced.

[3] Consider the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, 1 Kings 18.

[4] Consider the call of Isaiah and his encounter with the Holy: Is 6:1-10.

[5] Cf Samuel 15:22:  “Samuel said, ‘Does the Lord delight as much  in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifices, and to listen to God better than the fat of rams.’”  “For you do not desire sacrifice, a burnt offering you would not accept.  My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn a broken, humbled heart” (Ps. 51:18-19)

[6] Luke 6: 20

[7] When in the year 248 the prefect of Rome asked the deacon, St. Lawrence, to bring him all the treasures of the Church, Lawrence brought him all the poor of the city declaring these were the real treasures of the Church.  The prefect was so angry it is said he condemned Lawrence to a tortuously slow death affixed to a gridiron over coals.  After Lawrence had suffered pain for a long time he cheerfully declared, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.”

[8] The image of God’s face shining on us was the way the Jews expressed God smiling on us, e.g. “The Lord let his Face shine on you…” (cf. Numbers, 6:25).

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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