Friday, 31 August 2012

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

One thing I want to do with this blog in order to justify (!) its continuation is to use it to publish short notes on the lectionary readings (like most pastors in the LCA I follow the Revised Common Lectionary) as a way of sharing exegetical gleanings, possible sermon illustrations, theological reflections, etc. and by doing so hopefully assist other preachers in their preparations in some small way. I'm not pretending to be an authority in any of these areas and these notes do not pretend to be exhaustive; think of it as one beggar telling another beggar where bread can be found - heaven knows, we preachers get desperate for bread sometimes. Think of these posts as notes on the margins of the lectionary.

Anyway, here's a rather modest first attempt. I hope I can be disciplined enough to post something along these lines by the middle of every week and that God may use these notes to bless others.

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

The theme of true and false religion and the dangers of hypocrisy connect the readings for this Sunday. The Greek noun ὑποκρίτης (Mark 7:6) comes from the ancient Greek drama, where actors wore large masks (lit. "answer from under a mask"). Thus the hypocrite pretends to be someone or something he is not.

Christians are especially likely to be charged as hypocrites by those who conceive of Christianity as principally a religion of good works and not of faith. Of course, the Christian aspires to do good works in the service of God and his neighbour, but he often falls short of the standards that his own conscience and the word of God require; however, this does not lay him open to the charge of hypocrisy. As Johnson notes, to aspire to an ethical standard one has not yet reached is not hypocrisy:  "Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself." (Samuel Johnson, English essayist and lexicographer here). Hypocrisy only arises with the pretense to have achieved standards one has not.

In the Gospels the word appears only on the lips of Jesus - fittingly, as only he who is holy can truly judge men's hearts (cf Romans 2:1). Hypocrisy is the "leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1), who have set aside the law of God and taken up human traditions by which they pretend to a holiness they do not have. Understandably, then, for the Lutheran confessors hypocrisy was a mark of monasticism which claimed to do even more works than God required of man: "All these things are full of pharisaic vanity. For it is the height of impiety to hold that they satisfy the Decalog in such a way that merits remain, while such precepts as these are accusing all the saints: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thine heart, Deut. 6:5. Likewise: Thou shalt not covet, Rom. 7:7. [For as the First Commandment of God (Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind) is higher than a man upon earth can comprehend, as it is the highest theology, from which all the prophets and all the apostles have drawn as from a spring their best and highest doctrines; yea, as it is such an exalted commandment, according to which alone all divine service, all honor to God, every offering, all thanksgiving in heaven and upon earth, must be regulated and judged, so that all divine service, high and precious and holy though it appear, if it be not in accordance with this commandment, is nothing but husks and shells without a kernel, yea, nothing but filth and abomination before God; which exalted commandment no saint whatever has perfectly fulfilled, so that even Noah and Abraham, David, Peter and Paul acknowledged themselves imperfect and sinners: it is an unheard-of, pharisaic, yea, an actually diabolical pride for a sordid Barefooted monk or any similar godless hypocrite to say, yea, preach and teach, that he has observed and fulfilled the holy high commandment so perfectly, and according to the demands and will of God has done so many good works, that merit even superabounds to him. Yea, dear hypocrites, if the holy Ten Commandments and the exalted First Commandment of God were fulfilled as easily as the bread and remnants are put into the sack! They are shameless hypocrites with whom the world is plagued in this last time.]"

The preaching of the law without the Gospel produces "conceited hypocrites" (FC, Epit, V, 8). To the degree that the charge of hypocrisy may have a basis in fact, this error is the source of the perception that Christians are hypocrites; when preaching and religion loses the evangelical spirit and instead of pointing to Christ as the source of holiness directs the Christian to his own righteousness, hollow hypocrisy inevitably follows.

James urges Christians to be "doers of the law, and not hearers only"; the first "work" that God requires is that we believe in the Christ (John 6:29). Repentance and faith in Christ, not the law, are the source of true good works. Sanctification follows justification. In justification the work of the law is to accuse (lex semper accusat). In the course of sanctification the law serves the Christian not as a means but as a guide to what pleases God.

"Lord Jesus Christ it is Thy holy Gospel, it is Thy cause; look Thou upon the many troubled hearts and consciences, and maintain and strengthen in Thy truth Thy churches and little flocks, who suffer anxiety and distress from the devil. Confound all hypocrisy and lies, and grant peace and unity, so that Thy glory may advance, and Thy kingdom, strong against all the gates of hell, may continually grow and increase."
Melanchthon (1497-1560, Lutheran confessor),   Preface to the Defence of the Augsburg Confession

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