Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost October 16th, A.D. 2011
Have you heard the one about the Christian who was encouraging his neighbor to join him at a Sunday morning church service? Time and again the reluctant neighbor put off the invitations, first with one excuse, then another. Eventually, after yet another lame excuse, the Christian asked his neighbor to tell him the real reason for his unwillingness to come to church. With just a bit of venom in his voice, the neighbor replied, “That church is full of hypocrites.” To which the Christian replied, “Oh no, we’re not full of hypocrites. There’s room for at least one more.”
It’s no joke to be a hypocrite, at least not before God. Webster says a hypocrite is a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion, a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs. Hypocrite comes from the Greek word for actor, one who pretends to be someone or something different from who they truly are. Being hypocritical is a really bad idea, first because God hates lies and deception, and second because hypocrites are always eventually revealed.
A person pretending to be virtuous and moral but who is really doing bad things is almost always caught up in his or her lies by the people affected and circumstances of their deception. If you are kind to your friends to their face, but run them down behind their backs, eventually everyone will know your hypocrisy and will begin to avoid you. If you preach against drinking and driving, but consider yourself impervious to the affects of alcohol, your car wrapped around a tree and your night spent in jail will reveal the truth about your habits. If you brag to anyone who will listen about how important your family is to you, but at home you treat your spouse and children like household slaves, you should remember that eventually your kids will grow up and they and your spouse may not always keep your ugly secret.
But even if one was to somehow completely fool everyone else, the Lord always sees through hypocrisy. Jesus, the Son of God, saw into the hearts of men, and He still does. With the Spirit of Truth searching out all lies, with the Father above all knowing since forever, no human being can hide hypocrisy from God. And so the hypocrite, living a pious, religious seeming lie, may seem to be doing well, but a hypocrite stands no chance before God. Do not think that you can lie to God. He knows. And it is most certainly no joke to be a hypocrite, at least not before God.
And yet who among us can deny that we are hypocrites? Especially when we consider the standard of godliness put before us today by Jesus. Jesus tells us to render, or give, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to give to God the things that are God's. Caesar was the emperor, the tyrant ruler in Rome who was oppressing the Jewish people, along with hundreds of other peoples around the world back in the first century. Caesar was not a duly elected servant of the people, limited in power by a congress, judges and the next election cycle. He kept law and order after a fashion, but Caesar was no beloved leader. And yet Jesus tells the Pharisees and the Herodians to pay their taxes and give earthly obedience to Caesar. We too, are to pay our taxes and give earthly obedience to our government, even when our government may be acting less than perfectly. It is perfectly fine to try to minimize your taxes within the rules set by the IRS, as well as take action in our democratic system to try to improve our laws. But unless the government is clearly commanding you to do something that causes you to sin, you are to obey the laws, pay your taxes, perform your civic duties, and give respect to your earthly governmental rulers. All of them. That is the Lord’s standard. Can anyone of us deny our hypocrisy?
Maybe. Maybe you are a model citizen. Maybe you can give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. It’s not impossible. But the real issue before us today is not giving unto Caesar, who only cares about outward obedience, but rather the issue is giving unto God, who is concerned with outward and inward obedience, the obedience of the heart. Give to God the things that belong to God, says Jesus. We are all holding back from God. We are all hypocrites.
First, what doesn’t belong to God? The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. What do you have that hasn’t been given to you by God? Can you keep your heart beating, or does it just continue pumping blood around your body as an ongoing gift from God? Do you make the sugar beets or the corn or the tomatoes in your garden grow? Or do you just add water from the ditch or hose, and fertilizer from the chemical company, then sit back and watch the miracle of growth happen? Oh sure, you work hard for your money, but where does your energy and intelligence that allows you to accomplish anything come from? We only have our things, our families, our lives, as a stewardship, good gifts given to us to use and enjoy, but never to claim as our right, because they quite simply aren’t. For a thing to truly be ours, we would have to be able to hold onto it. But of course, no matter how tight our grip, eventually, everything slips through our fingers.
Every good gift comes from the Father above, but do we give thanks to God and rejoice daily in all the wonderful gifts He gives us? The Lord doesn’t want us to pay Him back for all He gives us, He only wants us to praise and thank Him and use our gifts in keeping with His will. God wants us to use our gifts, not only for ourselves, but also in service to our neighbor. But we so often don’t. We cling to our things with all our might, and spend too much time worrying about how we can get more. We forget Who has given us all our goods, and we all too easily take the short step from ingratitude to misuse. We are all holding back from God. Who among us can deny our hypocrisy?
All Jesus tells us to do this morning is give unto God the things that are God’s. And yet, as fair as that sounds, Jesus leaves us in a desperate situation. A clear and reasonable standard has been given us by God, but we are not capable of meeting it. Truth be told, we often don’t even care to try. Our situation before Caesar may be bad, but before God our situation is completely desperate.
So, what should we do when we are desperate? Shall I tell another joke? No?
Desperate people often try desperate things, take drastic action. When I’m desperate I may try harder, really hard. I might dedicate my life to God and His law, stop cheating on my taxes, stop running my mouth about my friends, start living my life for God first, and neighbor second. And this would be a good plan, except that it won’t work. There’s nothing wrong with such a plan, in fact much earthly good would come from such living. But no heavenly good will come of it, because I’m involved, and I can’t meet the perfect standard.
Each of us, no doubt could and should try harder, but us trying harder will not solve our problem. Instead, in the face of our desperate situation before God, the first thing we sinners should do is shut up and listen. Be still, and learn what God is doing. Hear the Word of Christ, the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls. Listen to Jesus, hear more of His story, dig around a bit in His Word, and see if the Holy Spirit provides an escape, a way of rescue from our desperate hypocrisy.
As Jesus’ instructions make you squirm in the pew, hear again when and where Jesus gave us this Word this morning. Our reading from Matthew continues, as it has for several weeks, to describe the events of Holy Week, just a day or two before the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Oh yes, we should hear these words as closely connected to the Cross of Jesus, where Jesus gave everything to God, and to you. As you struggle with His words, remember Christ’s goal, and remember why He pursued it. And why did Jesus go to the Cross? To take away the sins of the world. As He jousts with the Pharisees in our reading today, Jesus had already lived the perfect life that God expects of every man, woman and child. Now Jesus heads to the Cross, to take away your sin.
Did you hear that? Jesus has taken away your sins. Every good thing you have, from your beating heart to your 401K, is only a stewardship from God, a temporary possession you are to enjoy and take care of for God. But God’s ownership is much greater than that; even your sins don’t belong to you! Jesus through His agony, bloody sweat and death, has claimed them for Himself.
Hear this good news: Jesus wants your sins. The first return God desires from you is not your tithes and offerings, it’s not your praise and thanksgiving, but rather God wants your sins. We gather around the Lord’s Word and Sacrament, not primarily to do service to Him, but rather to bring Him our sins, and receive forgiveness in return. It truly is as we spoke earlier – if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we come to God without confessing our sins, we are the worst of hypocrites. We will be cast out. But if we confess our sins, if we turn all our hypocrisies over to Jesus, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
So render unto the Lord God Jesus Christ the first thing that He asks of you – give Him your sins. Trusting in His forgiving love, confess your sins to God, and He will give you forgiveness, life, salvation, and a new heart. Pray the prayer King David prayed after confessing his sins of hypocrisy, adultery, and murder: Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.
The key to leaving hypocrisy behind is confession and absolution. The sinner who wants to amend his or her way must begin by confessing the truth about sin, all the while confident of God’s mercy, because of Jesus, knowing that by His Word God will begin, continue and bring to completion His good work in the heart of the sinner who believes in Jesus.
Jesus has taken away your sins, so give them to Him. Confess your sins, daily, make it your joyful, humble habit. For you are forgiven, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.