Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Some of you know that I used to teach second grade.
Immanuel Christian School is a small, private school in northeastern Pennsylvania. It is in a small city, Hazleton—spelled H-A-Z-L-E. The word on the street is that when the city was founded, its name—which comes from the hazel tree—was misspelled on the founding documents; and that, when they discovered the misspelling, those in power decided it wasn’t worth going through the hassle to correct it.
Yeah! Hazleton! An old coal mining town whose heyday had long since passed! This is where God called me to be a teacher for two years; to teach second graders.
Oh, the stories I could tell you! Northeastern Pennsylvania was extreme culture shock for this thirty year-old and his twenty-six year-old wife, two born-and-bred Californians. Especially the winter!
Anyway, as you know, second graders are curious folk to work with. (Especially when from northeastern Pennsylvania!)
They’re like little grown-ups in a lot of ways. They each have their own, unique desires, personalities, mannerisms, and traits. They tend to gravitate towards one group of classmates and avoid another. They lose their tempers; they become impatient with each other; they judge others and point out their faults; they gossip. And so on.
But they’re different from most grown-ups in this: they haven’t yet learned discretion.
One day, in the middle of the school year, a second-grade boy ran up to me, panting, red in the face with urgency, obviously upset; grabbed my shirtsleeve; then pointed in another boy’s direction and shouted, “He hit me.”
We grown-ups do the same thing. Only we use discretion. We don’t run, for one thing. And we’re usually not red in the face with urgency. (We might be urgent, sure; but we know how to hide our redness). And we aren’t so bold as to grab an authority by the shirtsleeve. We us other, subtler means to get someone’s attention.
But we do seek someone who will listen to our cause, who will take our side. And, yes, whether it’s gossip in the parking lot or a courtroom battle, just like second graders, we grown-ups point in someone else’s direction and shout out judgments against them.
So: what I wanted to say in this situation—when the second-grade boy grabbed my shirtsleeve and shouted that another had hit him—was, “Well, you probably deserved it.”
I wanted to say this (and I may or may not have actually done so once or twice in similar situations) because I knew I wasn’t hearing the whole side of the story. There was another side, surely. What would the second boy say if I were to ask him? I knew: the first boy was telling me only what he wanted me to hear and hiding the rest from me.
It’s very easy for us—maybe even inherent in our nature—in our humanity—to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. It’s very easy for us to put ourselves first, even when we tell ourselves we’re putting others first. It’s very easy to see the speck in someone else’s eye without even noticing the two-by-four sticking out of our own eye.
We’re especially good critics of everyone else; and especially bad critics of ourselves.
“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
The word hypocrite has an interesting etymology.
It comes from the Greek noun hupokrisis, which means: the acting of a theatrical part. We have the English word actor. An actor acts a theatrical part, sure. But before you want to start calling Chris Pratt a hypocrite, the meaning here is more like the character an actor plays and not the actor himself. If anything, then, Chris Pratt is not a hypocrite; but Owen, the character he plays in Jurassic World, is.
The Greek verb hupokrinesthai gives us a little more insight. It means: to play a part; to pretend. This is the action that the actor does. In Jurassic World, the actor Chris Pratt pretends to be Owen, the park’s game warden.
One more facet: hupokrisis, the Greek noun, can be broken into two constituent parts: hupo and krisis. Hupo is where we get our English prefix hypo-, which means below, or beneath. (Example: hypothyroidism.) And krisis, giving us our English word crisis, means decision, or judgment. Put it together and you have a judging below—one person deciding that another person is beneath him. (Just like Chris Pratt thinks he’s better than everyone else just because he’s a famous Hollywood actor! Okay, for the record, I’m just kidding.)
Rightly, then (and now I’m not kidding), does Jesus call the judgment-casters in today’s Gospel hypocrites! For they judge Christ’s disciples as being beneath them, since they don’t wash their hands before a meal.
Also, there is an element of pretension here: in that the judgment-casters are merely acting, putting on a show.
And that’s what I want to focus on: Hypocrisy is inauthentic. Or, to say it a little differently, hypocrisy is the negation of authenticity.
So we’ve arrived at a contrast. On the one hand is hypocrisy: a pretend life. And on the other hand is authenticity: an honest life.
Now, we certainly don’t want to be hypocrites! Yet hypocrisy is something we all struggle with—whether you want to admit it or not—and if you don’t want to admit it, well, that’s proof enough.
Which leads to the question: What would it look like for us to live authentic lives, to live lives free of hypocrisy?
For the answer, I return to my second graders.
I wanted to say to the boy with the red face who’d pulled my shirtsleeve, “Well, you probably deserved it!” But what I did instead was to capitalize on this incident by turning it into a teaching moment.
“All right,” I called out, not to him but to the entire class, “recess is over. It’s time to line up and return to the classroom.”
Some minutes later, when everyone was seated and quiet—perhaps it was several minutes later—I continued. “Get your Bibles out,” I said, “and turn to Matthew 18:15. Raise your hand when you find it; first one there gets to read it aloud.”
And of course this was a sort of game for them. But I had grander plans.
Predictably, the same red-faced boy who’d pulled on my shirtsleeve raised his hand first—or maybe he was second or third; but I was hoping to call on him anyway, so I used it to my advantage.
“Brent,” I said, “I see you’re there. Begin reading, please.”
Which he did—from the New International Reader’s Version (the NIRV): “If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them. Keep it between the two of you—”
And I interrupted. “Wait,” I said. “What did that just say? Please, read it again, Brent. And slow down a little bit, so that everyone can understand you.”
And he did. But this time, now that everyone was really listening, I let him keep reading: “If they listen to you, you have won them back. But what if they won’t listen to you? Then take one or two others with you.”
“Thank you, Brent,” I said.
I then went on to explain that this is the Bible’s remedy for tattle-tales. “Don’t you all think it would be a good idea,” I asked, “if, instead of running to a teacher right away to tell on someone, you just went to that person and tried to work it out between the two of you?”
Of course, there was a lot of nervous shuffling of feet and something of a murmur of incredulity. But in the end we agreed to try it. If a student brought a tattle to tell me, I wouldn’t listen until that person had spoken first with the offender. And at first it wasn’t very easy; but we stuck at it. And before the year was over, I’m happy to report, the students came a long way. They increased in their authenticity and decreased in their hypocrisy.
More specifically, the students became more honest with each other. They learned to let things go that weren’t really that important after all. They gave each other the benefit of the doubt. They became less quick at passing judgment on each other, and in thinking themselves better than everyone around them. They didn’t tell on each other so frequently. They didn’t lose their tempers as quickly. They stopped cutting in the line to the drinking fountain. They even began to transgress their imagined group walls, their social boundaries. Boys hung out with girls; girls hung out with boys. A girl of Italian descent began eating lunch with the Puerto Rican girls (and in northeastern Pennsylvania, that’s a big deal)!
But isn’t this what authenticity is all about?
Giving others the benefit of the doubt.
Not judging ourselves to be better than everyone around us.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live more like these second graders.