[Below is special outdoor worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church of Centerville, Ohio, that took place this past Sunday morning. Below the video, you'll also find the printed text of my message.]
We love watching the Inspector Morse mystery series on the BritBox streaming service. In an episode we watched recently, the assistant headmaster of an all-girls secondary school is killed. Morse pursues his investigation by going to the home of the headmaster, who tells the inspector to ask his questions in front of his wife and their kids. The family came across as open and loving and mutually supportive. It’s only later that you learn that the family’s happy facade conceals a sewer of lies and wrongdoing. The family was a hypocritical show.
Hypocrisy abounds in the real world too. And it’s not just the people you and I so readily classify as “nothing but crooks” who are the hypocrites. The Greek word, hypokritḗs, from which we get our English word hypocrite, means to judge under. A hypocrite is one who appears to be one thing on the outside but is another on the inside.
Have you ever been a hypocrite?
Do you ever say, “How nice to see you” to the person you’ve spent the previous five minutes trying to escape at the grocery?
Have you ever told your child, “Try your best” just after you’ve been slacking off at work?
Have you thoughtlessly and unrepentantly done something wrong just after praying or confessing your faith in Jesus during worship?
If we’re honest, we must admit that we too, are or can be hypocrites. In fact, I believe it's true what you've often heard me say: The Church is a fellowship of recovering hypocrites.
In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus has an encounter with a group of hypocrites. They’re composed of representatives from two different groups of first-century Judean people.
One is Pharisees. The Pharisees were rigid Jewish religionists who effectively believed that by strict adherence to God’s Law and a bunch of other laws they made up, they could call themselves righteous, worthy of life with God because they were so good.
The other group was supporters of King Herod, the lying thug who, for political purposes, claimed to be a descendant of Israel’s great King David. These Herodians were the kinds of people that like to befriend the powerful, gaining influence and money.
And the Herodians, like the Romans, viewed Jesus as a threat to their benefactor’s crown.
The Pharisees and the Herodians, each for their own reasons, want Jesus dead.
But on this Monday of Holy Week, Jesus’ crucifixion just four days away, they put on an entirely different face to ask Jesus a question. “‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’” (Matthew 22:16-17)
Jesus doesn’t fall for their flattery, any more than He falls for it whenever we go through the motions of prayer or confession or loving God and loving neighbor and then thoughtlessly or unrepentantly sin.
That’s why, fully aware as only God can be, of the thoughts running through their minds, Jesus responds as He does. “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (Matthew 22:18)
The word translated here as trap is the same word used of the devil when he tested or tempted Jesus in the wilderness.
Just as the devil wanted to prevent Jesus from fulfilling His mission of dying as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and being raised from the grave to open eternity to those who believe in Him, the Pharisees and the Herodians want to rob Jesus of His popularity.
They believe that in making Jesus unpopular, they will reduce Jesus in the eyes of their fellow Jews to the status of just another phony messiah, like the many before Jesus Who were crucified and forgotten.
Their trap is a question that they thought would force Jesus to offend people and get Him into trouble no matter how He answered it. The specific tax they ask Jesus about was one levied by the Romans on the conquered Jewish people called the kḗnsos. This tax had been unpopular since it was first instituted in 6 AD. It was basically what the Romans charged the Jews for the privilege of having been conquered.
If Jesus said that it was lawful, or OK, according to God’s Law, for the Jews to pay the tax, Jesus would offend the nationalist Zealots.
If Jesus said it didn’t accord with God’s Law, then He would have the Romans out for His blood.
Now, Jesus had no fear of dying. He came into the world and gone to Jerusalem to do just that. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told the disciples four different times the same basic thing He said in Matthew 17:22-23: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.”
But Jesus was bound to die on God’s terms, for our salvation and at the time decided by God alone, not by puny human politicians or religious authorities.
Jesus then asks the Pharisees and Herodians for one of the coins used to pay the tax. They were considered blasphemous because they proclaimed Ceasar to be the son of God and a priest and had Caesar's image imprinted on them. But right in God’s temple, these hypocritical holy men confronting Jesus had at least one of these coins in their possession. Jesus points to the image of Caesar on the coin and says, “...give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)
Jesus isn’t here talking about taxes or politics, although the Bible elsewhere teaches Christians to pay their taxes and be good citizens.
Nor is Jesus sidestepping the execution He came to Jerusalem to bear.
He is confronting the Pharisees and Herodians (and us) with two things: the fatal stupidity of hypocrisy before God and the freeing wisdom of being honest with God.
God’s Word is clear: “...he knows the secrets of the heart…” (Psalm 44:21) When we play the hypocrite with God, pretending to be perfect and blameless in our relationships with God and with others, other people may be fooled. But God isn’t. Jesus warns us today: Don’t rely on appearing religious or decent or good people in order to gain the favor of God, now or in eternity. The world may call hypocrites righteous, but God knows the truth about each of us.
Instead, Jesus, God the Son, Who lived a sinless life on earth and offered it on the cross so that all who turn to Him in repentance and faith, have everlasting life with God, wants us to come to Him honestly.
When we honestly confess our sins and our need of Him, Jesus forgives us.
He covers us with His righteousness, true righteousness, true rightness with God, that cannot be taken from those who believe in Him.
Hypocrites pretend to be pious while pursuing their own agendas, consigning themselves to eternal condemnation from God.
The honest can pray with King David, “a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
God showers grace, forgiveness, and new life on those who can say honestly in Jesus’ name, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
In U2’s song, Cedarwood Road, are these lines: “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.” Our hypocritical selves will never admit to being broken, of being less than righteous, of imperfections or mistakes.
But when we are honest enough to admit our brokenness, our sin, our need of God, and turn to Jesus, the grace, life, and forgiveness of God are ours for all eternity.
Be honest with the God you meet in Jesus Christ and let Him love you into the wholeness that worldly hypocrisy can never experience, the righteousness only God can give. Amen