Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
March 03, 2019 – 10:30 AM
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Sirach 27:4-7 | Psalm 92:2-3; 13-16
I Corinthians 15:54-58 | Luke 6:39-45
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Many of you have heard the saying, “that’s the pot calling the kettle black.” That’s what’s known as an “aphorism.” An “aphorism” is a short, compact observation that contains a general truth, such as, “if it ain\’t broke, don\’t fix it.” Another example might be, “the child is the father of the man.” Today’s Gospel is full of aphorisms. We hear Jesus tell us things like, \”Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit,” and, “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.” What the writer of today’s Gospel has done is to string several aphorisms together to form one coherent narrative whose underlying theme is one found throughout the teaching ministry of Jesus: calling out hypocrisy, by telling us to look at ourselves before we judge other people, as you might recall from the story about the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus said to the crowd of men about to stone her, “Let that person who is without sin cast the first stone.”
What Jesus was saying there, and in today’s Gospel, is to look at yourself first before you criticize or judge other people. How many of you have had another person exclaim to you, “You hypocrite” just like Jesus said today in today’s Gospel? I have, many times. On some occasions, when I am really upset about something, I will break into a tirade of profanity, using words that are not fit for church, only to be told, “How can you be a Christian and talk like that?” Or if someone displeases me, I might wish that person was dead, only to be told, “How can you preach God’s love and wish harm to another person?” While I may be a priest, I am just as human as you are. I am not perfect, and I do not claim to be. Like you, I commit sins. Priests not only hear confessions, but they also go to confession themselves as well, or at least they should.
Many of the stories about Jesus use metaphors that arise from vision and eyesight. A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. It provides clarity, or it identifies hidden similarities between two ideas. The blindness discussed in today’s Gospel is a good example. Jesus tells us that the blind should not lead the blind and that one should not look for the speck of dust in the eye of another when there is a plank in one’s own. In scripture, blindness metaphors are often used to describe those who are spiritually blind. Here, Jesus is perhaps telling us that those who are spiritually blind should not lead others down the same path. However, often those who are spiritually blind are quicker to see spiritual blindness in other people when they should be dealing with their own spiritual blindness in the first instance.
Spiritual blindness that is blindness to who God really is and what God really does is what is often behind hypocrisy. It is blindness to the fact that all humanity was created in God’s image and that all people are beloved children of God. Spiritual blindness is what allows us to look at the fruit of a tree rather than the tree itself. Put in human terms, spiritual blindness allows us to look at what people do ostensibly, what they do for show, rather than their motive for doing it. The person who is overly generous in inappropriate ways often gives gifts for ulterior motives rather than sincere goodwill from the heart. These situations, however, often shake themselves out eventually.
Some who are spiritually blind, however, are not among those who act from nefarious motives. They are simply ignorant. They are acting as teachers when they really should be students before they can teach others. For example, I should not be teaching other people to speak Spanish when my own command of that language is still very elementary, as in “Mi Español es poquito.” Only after I am fully fluent in that language and have taken some courses would I be qualified to teach it. But I can teach law, as I do have a law degree and was a practicing attorney for twenty years. And I can teach the many religious subjects I have studied intensely over many years and use in my daily work as a priest and can teach the basics of music as well, having been a lifelong singer and composer.
But why would anyone try to teach others when they don’t have a good command of the subject themselves? The answer is usually pride and/or some self-interest. We see this in politicians without a science background who opine for public consumption on scientific subjects, like sexuality or the environment. Sounding like an expert feeds their ego and may further their political objectives if the persons listening to them are dumb and gullible enough to believe them. And we see the charlatans who hold themselves out as fake doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. These people don’t know what they are doing as they fake the professionals they represent themselves to be but are very good at gaining the trust of others for their own purposes. They do not, as true professionals would, care about those they victimize. They are the spiritually blind leading the spiritually blind. It is the selfish taking advantage of the gullible and ignorant. Such people are not good trees and therefore cannot bear good fruit. Their attention to their own ego blinds them to the harm they inflict on victims blind to their own victimization. The moral wrong here is one of dishonesty. People are not actually what they say they are.
The word “hypocrite” originally meant, “actor,” and as we all know, actors make their living taking on the identity of someone they are not, literally by faking who they are. But I don’t cast any negative aspersions on actors; after all, my late mother was an actress. That’s because in the movies or on the stage, an actor’s or actress’s portrayal of a character is meant for a positive purpose, to entertain or to tell a story. So Jesus isn’t criticizing actors and actresses as we know them.
As we are well aware, the meanings of words change over time or mean different things in different situations. As is universally necessary for reading all scripture, “context is everything.” When we interpret scripture literally, devoid of context, we are the blind leading the blind.
What Jesus addressed in today’s Gospel was dishonesty. That is what is at the root of hypocrisy as we know it when your actions don’t reflect what is really in your heart, where you are not representing your true self to others. It is spiritual blindness on display, blindness to who you really are and exploiting the blindness of others. It is a bad tree trying to bear good fruit, when in fact, it cannot do so.
Today’s first reading is from the Book of Sirach. It’s one of those books that are not in the protestant bible, yet it’s accepted as Catholic scripture. It’s what’s called a “wisdom book.” Sirach was written about two hundred years before the birth of Jesus, in what’s called the “intertestamental period.” Today’s excerpt exemplifies the widespread emphasis on speech in the Wisdom literature of the Jewish Scriptures. Indeed, through speech, God gave human beings the ability to communicate in greater detail than any other animal. Our first reading uses agricultural metaphors to make the point that what you say reveals what’s inside you, including your faults. Hence, on the surface, our speech would appear to be important, but Jesus goes beyond that.
For Jesus, what we do is much more important than what we say. Jesus recognizes that fruit that looks good comes often comes from a bad tree. The leaves on the tree may look attractive, but it’s truly the fruit on the tree that counts, not just the words.
We see this principle all the time in politicians. According to an article in the New York Times, dated October sixth, twenty-seventeen, former Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, who was a vociferous abortion opponent, got his mistress pregnant and urged her to have an abortion. And, C-N-N reported on August twenty-seventh, two thousand seven, that former gay-bashing Republican Senator Larry Craig, was arrested for soliciting a lewd act in a men’s restroom.
In both of these situations, the words of these politicians were the leaves on the tree, but their actions were the fruit, and according to Jesus, we must look to that fruit to evaluate their fitness for public office. One would think that the incongruity of their words and actions, in and of itself, would upset even those who support their position on the issues that identify them; we would hope that no one wants a legislative representative whose private life does not mirror the value statements their rhetoric purports to support, but that is not always the case. Today, we see politicians garnering support from people who are more concerned about the success of their particular agenda rather than the integrity of those who bring it about and the methods by which it is accomplished.
For many people, a deep and wide chasm exists between what they say and what they do. The same people point out alleged defects in others when their own defects are far more serious. Not only does their hypocrisy show us their lack of integrity, but it also helps elucidate how unrealistic the principles are that support their position. For example, we now know that same-sex attraction is part of many segments of the natural world, not something bad. And we know that many pregnancies are naturally aborted by way of miscarriage. The politicians who denounce same-sex marriage and abortions are woefully blind as to these human biological facts and use their positions of power to lead others similarly ignorant in order to get themselves elected. Most of these politicians have no advanced training in biology, yet they opine as experts but using that non-scientific source called the Bible. Thus, the blind are truly leading the blind, for sure. Their motivation is the problem, which more often than not, arises from raw self-interest. While for some people spiritual blindness can be ascribed to their environment and upbringing, in many cases, it is a deliberate choice to further self-interest. Those people acquire and maintain their views to win elections so they can continue to get money to live high on the hog.
For many people, physical blindness is a permanent condition. But spiritual blindness is different. It often goes away on its own as time as time goes on. For example, the value of many people have evolved and changed, like Bill Clinton, who signed off on “don’t ask, don’t tell”, but now supports LGBT persons serving openly in the military. And spiritual blindness can be treated with education when we open the eyes of its victim to the true reality of God, that is, the realization that was manifested by God’s love to the world through the incarnation of God as Jesus. Making Jesus a reality in your life opens your eyes, and you are free to lead others to Jesus as well.
Eliminating spiritual blindness enables us to see Jesus lead us on a path of integrity. That’s the true bottom line on today’s Gospel, integrity. What is integrity? Integrity means wholeness, being complete and not divided in any way – physically, spiritually, emotionally or aesthetically. It means that you have every quality that you should have and nothing in the wrong place. Integrity is an uncompromising adherence to a code of values. By that, I mean utter sincerity, incorruptibility, honesty, and candor. Integrity of character avoids any and all kinds of duplicity, deception, artificiality, or shallowness. Above all, your words match your actions. Your message to the world around you becomes, “I am who I say I am. You can trust me to do the right thing.”
Integrity is not just an intellectual concept. On a practical level, integrity matters. We’ve seen that this week in the televised testimony from Michael Cohen, President Trump’s now-former lawyer. He’s going to prison because he did not act with integrity in his dealings with banks and the government. Although he might have exposed wrongdoing in his recent Congressional testimony to reduce his prison sentence, perhaps his integrity prodded him to testify concerning the acts of others that reflect a lack of integrity.
I want to emphasize here that I’m not using the pulpit to advocate who should win next year’s election. What I’m addressing is the overall importance of integrity in business, in government, and in our personal lives. Those in leadership positions, whether in the church, in government, or in business have a duty to set examples of integrity, not join the race to the bottom to see how many dishonest acts they can commit without getting caught.
If anyone is called to set examples of integrity, it is the clergy, starting with not using the power differential inherent in their positions to coerce or take advantage of those in their care. Unfortunately, some clergy have done the opposite, and in so doing have caused life-changing harm to thousands of people, made more severe by the trust and confidence reposed in spiritual leaders by church-going people, particularly children.
If we need motivation toward integrity, today’s reading from Saint Paul gives it. In today’s second reading, Paul’s own experience of the Risen Lord and his life of hardship focused his attention on life beyond the present world. Our new life in Jesus renders insignificant the physical death that appears so final and complete to those who don’t see life in terms of the eternal risen life of Jesus. Our entire goal is to respond to God’s call to new life with the risen Lord, a life that results both from God’s gifts and our efforts. Fulfillment of that goal is infinitely worth the struggle involved in retaining our integrity. AMEN.