Sixth Sunday of Year A
'For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.'
Many of us are familiar with the TV comedy series ‘Keeping up appearances’ and the snob, Mrs Bucket, who tries to hide her common background and circumstances, yet fails miserably to impress those she wants to look good for. We laugh at her vanity, maybe because we can identify with some hint of it secretly in ourselves when we have fallen flat on our faces, or because we know neighbours or acquaintances who think they are fooling us, but are in fact fooling only themselves.
A measure of our maturity or honesty is how readily we can laugh at ourselves and share the joke with others. Blessed are those who do not take themselves too seriously.
We naturally judge people in terms of how they present themselves – for a job interview, for a social occasion, or we admire someone in uniform – and their attention to detail, such as shiny shoes or buttons, does say something about how seriously they take themselves and their role, as well as not letting the side down, as it were, in their profession. We rightly tut-tut at sloppiness in uniform, or someone badly dressed for an occasion. I think of Groucho Marx’s line to a girl who said, ‘I just had enough time to throw on this dress’ to which he replied ‘you nearly missed!’
We judge beauty after a while, however, beyond skin level. Over time as we get to know someone better, appearances simply don’t matter. Friendship, loyalty, reliability, kindness, openness and trust are qualities that tend to endear us to a person over the long haul, much more than what the world might describe as ‘glamorous’.
Surface superficial discipleship is not pleasing to the Lord. To be focussed merely on external appearances, what one looks like. Just as beauty is only skin deep, so can virtue be. We might often ask someone ‘how do I look?’ awaiting praise or an honest comment. That is one thing – to present oneself respectably. It is quite another to do so in an insincere way in a bid to outshine others or to do so that attracts attention and praise for one’s seeming virtue and personal glory as the Pharisees did. The problem for the Pharisees therefore is the cultivated sense of superiority and looking down on others in judgment – usually in a condemning and self-satisfied way - that external emphasis alone can engender, the danger that it is a virtue in itself and is empty show.
Insincerity points to a deep inner flaw that serves as a warning to all of us who desire to keep God’s commandments - lack of integrity, being a hypocrite, ‘looking good’ on the outside, being false and superficial, living a virtuous life that is shallow, merely keeping the rules out of habit and, yes ‘keeping up appearances’.
Even to go to Jerusalem today it is quite striking to note the emphasis on modest dress, on sober colours, on unshaven bearded heads covered in public, with black hats and skullcaps, tassels, and hair in ringlets for men and boys. It is impressive; it is quite public, and therefore the body language is that one is proud to be easily identifiable as a Jew. There is a sense of clarity of identity, expression and belonging. You know when you see these prominent displays of Judaism that you are in the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem or near the Wailing Wall. It is a reminder of the culture and mentality that must have existed in Jesus’ time that emphasised externals.
The Lord condemns the scribes and the Pharisees, however, because they are more concerned about their dress code and parading their observance of rules rather than keeping the commandments in the depths of their hearts and living it out sincerely in practical ways. They miss the wood for the trees, because their adherence to silly human regulations has taken prominence and precedence over the Lord’s own law, or 10 commandments.
The Lord cannot be fooled, even if perceptive people can be for a while. He is described in the First Reading in these terms:
For vast is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is almighty and all-seeing.
His eyes are on those who fear him;
he notes every action of man.
It is quite exhausting to put up a front and be false to others. ‘To thine own self be true, then it follows as night follows day that you cannot be false to any man’ (Polonius farewell advice to Laertes, Hamlet).
But it is quite another thing altogether to live a lie – to be saying one thing and doing another. To do so before the Lord is even more serious.
The word ‘Hypocrisy’ comes from the Greek and it originally meant "play-acting” for those on a stage. It has come to mean living a lie and ‘carrying on an act after you leave the stage, it has come to mean saying a thing without really meaning it. It is ultimately, dishonesty.
How much of my daily Christian life is ‘keeping up appearances’? Is it just a masquerade, or a charade? Or do I mean it? Do I talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’?
Or, in the words of the Psalm, is my life ‘happy’ and ‘blameless’ ‘doing his will’, ‘seeking him with all my heart’? Do I know the 10 commandments? Do I examine my conscience often or at all to see if I live them?
Let us take to heart Jesus’ words and examine our consciences:
'For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.