Archive for injustice

Help from Hypocritical Harold

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 12:38-44


Jesus plays with a stereotype today. For the sake of illustration, let’s call him Hypocritical Harold.

Now, not all the scribes were this way; but enough were that Jesus’ words painted a familiar picture in the minds of the people he spoke to.

We do the same thing today: paint stereotypes with descriptions. We describe someone, for instance, as an ambulance-chasing lawyer.

Not all lawyers, we know, are ambulance chasers. In fact, I know many lawyers who entered the profession precisely because they wanted to make a positive difference for the betterment of society, the common good.

Nevertheless, the ambulance-chasing lawyer is common enough in our day that it has become a stereotype. A picture of someone like Saul Goodman comes to mind. Better call Saul!

So it was in Jesus’ day with scribes; and thus Hypocritical Harold, a familiar picture in the minds of the people Jesus addresses today in the temple.

Harold walks around in clothes that are definitive of his office, something like me wearing my collar in public. But his clothes are not just a basic uniform; they’re also showy. He’s got a different set of robes for every day of the week—two for Shabbat!

Next, probably somewhat as a natural outcome of his showy clothes, people compliment him and greet him with feigned respect everywhere he goes.

His is an office of privilege, after all. He’s had to fight his way, long and hard, to get there. He deserves respect, the best seats in both the synagogue and the social scene. That’s not vanity! Or ego! Is it?

Of course, as a byproduct of his office, Hypocritical Harold will be asked to pray from time to time—especially from his seats of honor in the synagogue and at those all-important dinner parties. But what better opportunity to show off his knowledge and general worthiness!

So the prayers he makes are long, filled with sophisticated theological words that require years of academy training just to get their pronunciation correct, let alone what they actually mean.

And those who hear his prayers are left in a state of awe. I could never pray like that, they think; I hope the host never calls on me to say the blessing.

Maybe there is some vanity involved here; maybe some ego. But more importantly to Jesus is the effect that Hypocritical Harold causes.

“They devour widows’ houses,” he says; and thus, “They will receive the greater condemnation.”

What does Jesus mean?


For the answer, we simply read on.

Next, then, Jesus leaves the temple, where he was teaching, and takes a seat opposite the treasury; that is, the place where devout Jews deposit their monetary offerings. And he watches.

Some wealthy people come by—maybe there’s a scribe like Hypocritical Harold among them—and, Jesus observes, these wealthy people put a lot of money into the treasury.

That’s good for them; and good for their religious institution!

By the way, we should take note, especially during our annual pledge drive: the people who are well off here are giving a lot.

But, you know, the impression is that, even though they are giving a lot, after they leave their offerings behind, they’re still well off. These offerings, we get the impression, are not all that inhibiting. The wealthy people still leave in the same fancy cars in which they arrived.

In other words, as Jesus soon says to his disciples, the wealthy people here are giving out of abundance. God has blessed them with wealth. And, as an expression of gratitude for God’s blessing, they give back to God out of God’s abundance.

There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way.

We often read this Gospel passage and think it’s a moral lesson teacher; that when a wealthy scribe is contrasted to a poor widow, we are supposed to be unlike the vain, egotistical character and like the noble character.

But that’s just not the point Jesus is making today. There’s nothing wrong with the scribe or anyone else giving out of his or her abundance. In fact, that’s what the annual pledge drive asks for: give to God out of God’s abundance.

But back to the Gospel!

Next—and here is where the door-hinge swings; where the surprise comes—a widow arrives on the scene; and she puts two coins into the treasury. It’s all she has to live on, Jesus says.

This poor widow puts in far more than everyone else. She does not contribute to the religious institution out of her abundance; for she has no abundance. Rather, she gives everything she has.


Which leads me to wonder: Is this maybe what Jesus was getting at when he said that Hypocritical Harold devours widows’ homes?

Hypocritical Harold was a stereotype: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image . . . of a particular type of person” (Google Dictionary).

Hypocritical Harold was an oversimplification, sure. But he was already in people’s minds for good reason. Hypocritical Harold, the scribe, portrayed a symptomatic picture of a larger problem.

Well, what was the problem?

The word scribe comes from the Latin verb scribere, to write. Scribes, as the Latin suggests, wrote things down. They were literate, educated, bookish people.

We first hear about scribes in Israel’s history during the time of the kings and prophets, writing down the words spoken in official meetings.

In the OT books of 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, scribes are described as secular officials with responsibilities over financial and political documents.

Later in Israel’s history, over in Ezra and Daniel, scribes are celebrated for their righteousness and wisdom.

By the time of Jesus, scribes were additionally known as teachers and interpreters of God’s Law.[i]

Scribes were intelligent; and trustworthy.

But . . . by the time Jesus provided today’s stereotype, scribes had become a distinguished class of members in the Jewish religious institution. Hypocritical Harold, with his flowing robes, long prayers, and ego, was a widely held picture, a representative of the present-day religious system.

Far and above today’s passage being a moral story about right and wrong attitudes for giving, today’s Gospel is about a human system that was appropriating the property of the poor—a widow—for the benefit of the elite—a scribe.

And, amazingly, Jesus preached this in the temple—the spiritual focal point of the very religious institution he was criticizing!

Gutsy, eh?


So, one more thing to point out about stereotypes: We usually don’t want to admit it when they fit us.

Surely, not all the scribes in Jesus’ time fit the Hypocritical Harold stereotype; surely, many scribes were doing their work out of a desire to serve and honor and glorify God.

Nevertheless, Hypocritical Harold was a widely held picture, symptomatic of larger inconvenient truths about the religious system of the day.

So, how many scribes, do you think, would have heard Jesus’ words and thought, “Yep, that’s me all right!”?

Instead, when we hear a stereotype about us, don’t we tend to think, “Well, I can see how someone would say that; but that doesn’t apply to me!”?

Our default is to deny. That’s how we’re wired. We exempt ourselves.

But what if a stereotype we hear today does apply to us? Is constructive criticism—criticism from which we can learn—contained within?—just as Jesus offered constructive criticism to the religious system of his day?

Well, what do we hear today?

How about:

  • TEC appeals only to the white, wealthy, and educated.
  • There are no young people in TEC.
  • TEC is too privileged to be aware of the needs of the world outside.
  • TEC is liberal.
  • TEC is just a big country club.

It’s easy to brush these aside, isn’t it? The temptation is to say these stereotypes might be true of some Episcopal congregations out there, sure, but not ours!

Instead of brushing them aside, however, let us learn from Hypocritical Harold.

In general, when we look around us at the world in which we live, where do we find human systems appropriating the property of the poor for the benefit of the wealthy? Or oppressing the weak for the benefit of the strong? Or excluding the marginalized so that they don’t interrupt the status quo?

Then, more particularly, where do we find such human systems in our own church—whether in this local body or the wider church? Where have we been complicit; and how can we stop our complicity?

That’s what Jesus calls us to ask and do in today’s Gospel.

Whenever and wherever we find human systems that oppress, it is our responsibility in Christ to stop them; lest we become Hypocritical Harold.

[i] I am grateful here to Robert Bryant’s helpful insights. See Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p.287.


2015 Lent 15

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2015 by timtrue


Jeremiah 5:1-9

Speaking of his people, the Israelites, God tells Jeremiah (among other things), “They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.  Shall I not punish them for these things?” (vv. 8-9).

How do we humans get to this point?  And here I don’t mean just the particular sin of adultery, but acting well-fed and lusty, more like beasts than humans.  How do we get so fixated on our own passions that we lose all sense of rationality–the characteristic above all others that distinguishes humans from beasts?

A few days ago I wrote about an old high school friend who’d recently spent some time in jail for doing things he and I had never dreamed of doing in high school.  How did he get to the point where he either doesn’t value or care about the law–or even himself?

Then two days ago I explored an issue I really don’t know much about but nonetheless recognize as a horrible injustice: human trafficking.  How do humans become so calloused to the dignity of other human beings that they end up perpetrating such injustice?

How do we humans reach a point of such brazen disregard for God and humanity?

And then there’s this: when others do such things, oh, then it’s clearly, definitively, black-and-whitely wrong; but when I engage in them, somehow it’s all okay–or at least not so identifiably wrong.  When my opponent lies it’s, “No way!  Did you hear that malicious slander?”  But when I lie it’s, “Oh, come on; I was just bending the truth a little bit.”

It’s beastly.  It’s lusty.  It’s irrational.

I don’t know how we get to this point, exactly; but we do.  And when we do we have a knack for convincing ourselves that, somehow, in my case it’s not so bad as it seems, really.  It’s my story, we tell ourselves, and so I’m the only one who really understands it.

To which I say, yes, it is your story.  And, yes, you’re in the midst of it.  So it feels justifiable.  But have you tried to remove yourself from it, to step outside of your own narcissism for a few and look at it from an outsider’s point of view?  Maybe then it will look a little less justifiable.  Yes, no one else really understands.  Maybe you don’t really understand either.

Whatever the case, the truly loving person is the one who comes along, sees the wrong, and cares for the wrongdoer anyway.  The loving one sympathizes, sees through the wrong, finds the dignity, and even advocates, arguing on the wrongdoer’s behalf if need be.

Doing so–sympathizing, seeing through and beyond the wrong, advocating–doesn’t mean the loving one condones the sin.  A parent still loves her eight year-old after discovering a stolen teddy bear in her bed.  A loving parent sympathizes and advocates without condoning the act.

But neither does the loving one want harm to come upon the wrongdoer: what loving mother would allow harm to come to her thieving daughter?

Loving discipline requires much wisdom, wisdom that is rational.

And here is the true tension between justice and mercy: wise, loving discipline.

This tension, though, is not a dichotomy: either justice or mercy.  Rather, with love, it’s both justice and mercy.

Surely Jeremiah understood this tension.  Which is why he advocates, even to the point of arguing with God.

Surely we rational humans understand this tension too.  Which is why a loving mother disciplines her daughter appropriately.

So, to bring it back home, how do we get there?  I don’t really know, as I already said.  But maybe, it seems to me anyway, the trouble comes when set aside our self-discipline, when we allow our beastly passions to trump our rational humanity.