March 6, 2019, An Audience of One – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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“Don’t be like the hypocrites.”
Everybody is pretty sure they know what a hypocrite is. It’s somebody who acts one way on the outside, but inside they are something quite different. A hypocrite is a person we might say is two-faced, a person who might do the right things, but he does them for the wrong reasons.
If I don’t like someone, but I act all buddy-buddy and friendly to them, you might say I’m a hypocrite. If I donate money to charity, but inside I am thinking I would much rather use it to go out to lunch, you might say I’m a hypocrite.
If I come to church on Sunday and sit in my pew and spend the whole time wishing I was home in my pajamas reading the paper, you might say I’m a hypocrite.
If I confess my sins because I know they are bad, but I don’t feel the least bit guilty or sorry, you might say I am a hypocrite.
If I fast on Ash Wednesday but spend most of the day thinking about food, you might say I’m a hypocrite.
We might think we are hypocrites when our motives are impure, whose feelings don’t match up with their outer actions. But we have to be very careful if that’s how we define hypocrisy, because that pretty much means everybody here is a hypocrite a very large percentage of the time. Have you ever had to put on a smile and act pleasant with someone when inside you just can’t feel a single scrap of kindness or affection for them? Have you ever sat in your pew on Sunday morning thinking you would much rather be home? Have you ever prayed the prayer of confession without having deep feelings of guilt or shame – maybe without any deep feelings at all? Have you ever spent a fast day fantasizing about doughnuts?
If you answered “yes” to any or all of those questions, be comforted. First of all, you are normal. And second of all, you are NOT a hypocrite just because you do the right thing outwardly without your feelings or motivations being 99.99% pure like a bar of Ivory soap. Of course we don’t always have all the right feelings and motivations behind our good actions. If any human being has found a way to have perfect control over their feelings, I haven’t heard about it. But if, in spite of our wandering minds and our petty thoughts and our selfish, comfort-loving hearts, we go ahead and do what we know we ought to do, that’s not hypocrisy. That’s obedience – or at the very least it’s a good start on obedience.
So that brings us to the question: what does Jesus mean by hypocrisy. What is Jesus talking about here when he gives these stern warnings? It helps to know where the original world comes from. In ancient Greece, a hypocrite wasn’t a term for a bad person. A hypocrite was an actor in a play. That’s why the word hypocrite is used for a person who acts in a false or deceptive way, because they are just acting a part. They don’t really mean anything that they say or do – which can be very different from doing what you know is right in spite of your lack of appropriate feeling or motivations.
And when Jesus taught about doing our good works, our acts of piety like giving to charity, and praying, and fasting, he pointed out exactly how we can know the difference between our fumbling attempts at obedience, and true hypocrisy. The absolute key difference is in our audience. Someone who is a hypocrite, and someone who is not, outwardly they might be doing exactly the same thing – donating money, saying a prayer, giving up chocolate for Lent. But inwardly, what makes all the difference in the world is who they are performing for.
“Don’t be like the hypocrites who like a trumpet fanfare when they come to drop their tithe in the offering box,” Jesus said. In fact, there isn’t any evidence that any Jewish person ever did that, but Jesus isn’t describing a real action; he is making a point. The hypocrites, Jesus says, are playing to the crowd. They bring their offerings hoping to impress people. And they do. And that is the reward they get. But you, Jesus says, when you bring your offering, don’t even let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. Of course, that’s not even a possible thing to do – but again, he’s making a point. He’s saying don’t even be your own audience! Bring your offering before an audience of one. Do your good work for one person only. Perform your act of obedience before the Father, who sees even what is done in secret. And then your reward will be great.
You notice Jesus doesn’t command anyone to have righteous feelings or noble motivations for doing their works of piety. If you remember the story of the Widow’s Mite, – it might well have been that she was filled with fear or anxiety or even regret when she heard her last two coins fall into the box. Because how would you feel? Can you even imagine? But as far as the widow knew, she was performing that act of obedience purely for God. He was her only audience. She knew her gift was ridiculously small. Certainly none of the wealthy alms-givers or priests or Scribes who were there that day would have given her as much as a passing glance. But in the eyes of God, who was the only one watching, her tiny offering was greater than all the other offerings put together. We can be sure her reward was very great.
When my granddaughter Katie was about four years old, she began taking ballet lessons and she had her first recital. It was in Dunn Theater at SUNY Potsdam, so it was a big place for a little girl, and there were a lot of people there. You could just see how nervous she was. All the other girls seemed to be right with the program. They were all pretty much doing their steps together and smiling out at the audience like they were supposed to. But poor Katie just sat at the end of the row of ballerinas in her pink tutu and looked small and lost and sad. Then, all of a sudden, her big brother, Alan, stood up in his seat and waved his arms wildly to get her attention. He gave her a big thumbs-up. And as soon as she saw Alan watching her, she lit up like little sunbeam. She still didn’t know her steps very well, but suddenly she was perfectly happy. All she needed in the whole world was an audience of one – her big brother, who always loves her and always protects her and who cheered her on when she was feeling lost.
It’s Ash Wednesday, and on Ash Wednesday we perform an act of piety that isn’t the least bit secret. We smear a black cross right on our foreheads. And when we go out from here, when we stop at the grocery store on the way home, or when we talk to our neighbor on our way into the house, everybody will know that we attended the Ash Wednesday service. We act out our faith in public places all the time. It is a good practice to spend time with God in silence and solitude when we are able. But we will always have to come back into the real world and live out our faith in the marketplace, you might say.
But hear what Jesus has to say to us. “Whatever you do, don’t be like the hypocrites, playing to the crowd out there. Sure, they get all the applause they’re looking for. And that’s all they get. But you – look out in the audience for that one face that always loves you and always protects you and who always cheers you on when you are feeling lost. Pray, or give alms, or fast; smile at that person who drives you crazy; go to church when you don’t really want to – but whatever you do, do it for him alone, only for the Father, who sees everything in secret, who can see even the murky and confused depths of your heart; who knows all about your mixed motivations and your inner wrestlings and from time to time, maybe even your hypocrisy. But always act out your faith for that audience of One. And your reward will be great.