“A hypocrite is afraid of the truth … To pretend suffocates the courage to openly say what is true; and thus, the obligation to say the truth at all times, everywhere and in spite of anything can easily be escaped.” — Pope Francis, weekly Wednesday audience, August 25, 2021, via America magazine
Christ speaks scathingly to the hypocritical Pharisees; he speaks also to those of us who are prone to hypocrisy today.
As we started classes a couple of weeks ago, the Church presented us with a series of Gospel readings that speak directly to zealous young believers. Christ’s exhortations to humility and self-examination apply to all believers at all times, and especially to Christians pursuing righteousness. A judgmental spirit not only drives others away from the Church but deeply jeopardizes one’s own spiritual wellbeing.
In daily Mass on the Saturday before the start of classes, we heard Christ saying that the scribes and Pharisees “preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens that are hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they do not lift a finger to move them.” Christ concludes the passage first with a command: “The greatest among you must be your servant,” and then with a statement of fact: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
In speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus speaks of those who “had it right”; indeed, at the beginning of the address, Jesus tells his audience to “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.” Their orthodoxy, however, excuses neither their hypocrisy nor their self-exaltation. The position of authority that they hold—“the seat of Moses”—in fact subjects them to a higher standard than others.
On that Sunday morning, we heard from Jesus in Luke’s gospel, who is asked by an anonymous interlocutor, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Christ’s response completely turns the question on its head: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” The question is a challenge, a test of the rabbi’s knowledge of theology; the questioner was likely a learned man, perhaps a Pharisee.
It seems likely, too, that the questioner was a Jew, as he addresses Jesus as “Lord,” and “the few” likely refers to the Jews, as opposed to the Gentiles. Christ responds to the question, with all its latent presumptions and assumptions, by directing it back to the person. The interlocutor asks a theoretical question; Christ provides a personal, imperative answer—he answers the question the interlocutor should have been asking.
The next day, we returned to Matthew’s gospel: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse land and sea to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.”
Not only are the Pharisees hypocrites, but they also pervert those whom they proselytize. And even further, their critical, exclusionary outlook prevents them from entering the Kingdom themselves. The maxim is here made ultimate: claiming for oneself God’s responsibility of judgment is a sure path to hell.
This cycle of readings from Jesus’ address to the Pharisees in Matthew concluded on the first day of classes: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.” Once again, Christ exhorts the Pharisees to look inward; their concern is to be with their own moral and interior life, not with their exterior appearance or with others’ righteousness.
Christ was speaking to us, too. Who are those who “have it right” in our context? Who are those who perceive themselves as having—or really do have—the formation needed in order to speak the truth with confidence on questions of faith? Who are those who have a privileged place to speak, write, and proclaim? It’s all of us who strive to declare and live out the truth of the Gospel.
The Church’s message for us at the beginning of this year is not one of self-congratulation; it is a message of warning. It is an exhortation to return to the source of our faith, to “cleanse the inside of the cup,” before polishing our Catholic social presence. It’s not about being in the right clubs; it’s about striving to enter through the narrow gate. To be sure, engaging in communal prayer, discussion, and activity for the causes of truth and faith is essential to our life as Christians. It cannot be the case, however, that our participation in Catholic clubs is constitutive of our Christian life.
The measure of your righteousness does not come from others. Your association with the ‘right people’—and certainly your refusal to associate with the ‘wrong people’—does not make you righteous in God’s eyes. Some will say: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” Jesus will respond: “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!”
This year, resolve to remain steadfast in prayer and increase in humility. A wise mentor told me recently: “The whole point of being a faithful Catholic and Christian is that we have the humility to acknowledge that God calls us to perfection that we can’t reach by our own power.” Trust in God, and leave the rest to Him.
Joshua Gilchrist is a senior from Keenan Hall who now lives off campus. He is a proud member of both the Program of Liberal Studies and the Department of Theology, and you can find him preparing for his large Columbus Day party or celebrating the fact that his PLS Seminar V class has moved on from War and Peace.
Picture Credit: Matthew Rice, Wikimedia Commons