TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Mk. 7:6
I’m a hypocrite.
The meaning of that word comes from what the ancient Greeks called a stage actor. A hypocrite, then, is a person who pretends to be what he or she is not.
In that sense, we’re all hypocrites at one time or other, in one way or other. We pretend to possess virtues and we proudly proclaim religious beliefs that in reality we often don’t live out. Instead, way too frequently, our actions are vastly different from what we publicly state to be our convictions.
Our politicians – regardless of party affiliation – are best known for being accused of hypocrisy. But much of that is possibly due to the fact that they are so public, so easily viewed and examined.
Next in line for being accused of hypocrisy are church goers, those of us – like you and me – who claim to follow the teachings and moral example of Jesus Christ. This task, of course, we all fail to do, in one way or another. In fact one renowned church minister named William Sloane Coffin used to say: “Those who would not join a church full of hypocrites should take heart. There’s always room for one more.”
We’re all hypocrites – to one degree or another.
And it’s to us, then, not just the scribes and Pharisees of today’s gospel, that Jesus’ words are addressed: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
What Jesus is trying to say in our gospel reading for today is that what is most valuable and endearing is not any public display of affection, or any pious posturing we can so easily exhibit.
Instead, it’s what is going on genuinely inside each of our hearts that really matters.
It’s the inside, not the outside that ultimately counts.
Perhaps the most compelling example of this – one that makes us all squirm a little – is this challenging and uncomfortable story that Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘Be merciful to me, a sinner.’”
What matters most is: what is the true intention of our heart? what do we see when we look deep into the mirror of our soul – as the tax collector did?
Ultimately our goal is to get the interior and the exterior of our lives to match up.
To do that, we have to choose.
We have to choose what is truly important to us. We have to choose what values are most dear. We have to choose what direction we want to take, what path we want to follow, what goal we want to pursue, what virtues we most prize.
Or, to put it more bluntly, we have to choose what we will fall in love with.
That’s the heart of the matter. That’s what determines what is alive and pulsating within us. That’s what animates us and drives us forward.
Again, notice Jesus’ emphasis in today’s gospel on the interior of ourselves, not the exterior. It’s what’s operative inside us, not the public display, not the masks we put on, not the make-up that we wear as we perform our role as an actor in a play.
The focus of everything Jesus calls us to be is found at the deepest level of ourselves, the place where true transformation can happen. It’s the place that is the “heart of the matter” for each of us.
This famous prayer of Pedro Arrupe, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, perhaps says it best:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning … what you read … whom you know …. So, fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
And, if I may add, it is also what will keep you and me from sinking into the sea of hypocrisy.
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.
NOTE: For those of you who might be interested, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, a senior editor at the National Catholic Reporter, has recently written three articles that give a very thorough and insightful overview of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. You can find these articles on my website: drtedsweb.com.