Getting to the Heart of Luke
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
July 21, 2019
If you do even a cursory search on the Internet for “reasons people do not go to church” you will find one reason, in particular, which always makes the top ten. Along with “it is boring” and “I don’t have time,” this is the perennial favorite and classic argument against Christian community: “they are all hypocrites.” I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. For goodness sakes, some of us have heard it from our own friends, from our own family. “I’m not going there because it’s full of hypocrites.” It’s hard to hear this. It causes rifts in relationships. It causes hurt feelings. Really, it is quite insulting: you religious people are just hypocrites.
And Jesus said it first. You heard the exchange I just read for you. Jesus is at a religious teacher’s home. He’s been invited to dinner and he didn’t follow one of the basic hand-washing customs. Instead of apologizing and washing his hands like a good guest should, Jesus uses the opportunity to call his hostnames. “You fools!” he says, “full of greed and wickedness…you are like unmarked graves.” Just after this dinner, in front of a crowd, he warned, “Beware of the Pharisees in their hypocrisy.”
It is amazing Jesus ever got invited to a party at all. When Jesus is railing at his Pharisee host, a fellow diner chimes in and says, “Jesus, when you say these things you insult us.” But Jesus does not miss a beat. He just goes right on ranting and says, “Then woe to you as well!” He is not a very good guest. He is insulting.
There is an idea that has become popular during the last few decades. The idea is that Jesus was a radical outsider who came to hurl condemnation on organized religion, like lobbing grenades over a high wall. And it is true that he was radical and he was not subtle about his opinion. But Jesus was not an outsider who detested religious people. Jesus was an insider. The religious world was his home territory. He went to synagogue each Saturday. He went to religious people’s parties, ate meals with them. Discussed scripture with them. When he points out their shortfalls, he does it as an insider: as one who loves his tradition and his people and who wants more for them. He sees more in them.
As true as that was for the religious people then, it is true for the Church now. Jesus loves his Church and he will not leave it. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want more from us; doesn’t see more in us. It is not out of hatred that he calls out our weaknesses, hurling insults from over the wall. It is out of love.
We should understand this, for we are Protestants. We are a people who were so concerned with religious people’s shortcomings that we protested. We believed in a religious life that could be reformed but would always need further reforming. This kind of thing is in our DNA; this belief that we cannot stop striving to be more faithful, that we must call out our shortcomings when we see them. It is who we are and we first heard it from Jesus.
As we consider why people do not go to church, now would be a good time to remember one of the most important reasons we do go to church. It is not to bulk up our weapons—words we can hurl at others to judge or exclude them. We come to church, not for weapons against others, but for a mirror in front of ourselves. We come here because we need a place we can be honest about who we are. We need a place where we can truly see ourselves. For, without truly seeing, we have no way to reset, to redirect, to point ourselves in the direction of who we want to be.
That is how this passage works too. This is not a rampage of woes to use against other people. This is not outsider stuff. This is a mirror before which we can be honest. When you find yourself caring more about how you look in society than how you serve in society, Jesus holds that mirror in front of you and prays you will be insulted. When you have been a stickler for the minutia of the law but have forgotten about justice, Jesus holds that mirror in front of you and prays you will be insulted. When you pretend to be perfect on the outside and refuse to acknowledge that you are empty on the inside, Jesus is here with that same mirror.
Strangely enough, one of the reasons we come to church is because sometimes we need to be insulted. We need Jesus to pull us back to his plan for us, to his call upon us. To do that, we will probably be insulted. No one wants to have a woe spoken to them. As hard as it is to hear Jesus say “Woe” to those religious people—to us religious people—remember that those woes can be transformed into beatitudes. And worship—the church—is a place that can happen.
Instead of “Woe to you for you have to have the seat of honor,” we come here to transform that in our own lives to “Blessed are you when you know your worth no matter where you sit.” Instead of “Woe to you who even pay tithe on your garden herbs but ignore God’s justice and love,” we come here so that can be transformed in our own lives to, “Blessed are you for you fight for justice even as you follow God’s commands.” We come here because we do not want to be an unmarked grave who spoils everything. We want to be transformed into an unmarked spring of water who blesses others without even realizing it.
Religious people are just hypocrites. Yes, we can be. It is an insult to our Lord when we are. That is why we are here. We come here for the honest mirror. Because we know the one holding it does not insult us out of anger or hate, but out of love. He wants more for us. He wants more for you. He sees in you the amazing blessing you can be. We don’t come to church to hide from our hypocrisy. We come here to face it head-on and to gain the courage and wisdom we need to turn our woes into blessings.
We come here BECAUSE it is hear when we can hear Jesus and, listening to him, there are weeks when we say, “Jesus, when you talk like this you insult us.” And we thank God for it. Amen.