Beautiful on the outside, but rotting on the inside

This Sunday the lectionary invites us to consider two passages. They are verses 1-6 and 16-21 in chapter 6 of Matthew.

The passages sandwich the prayer which we call “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Matthew uses the sandwich technique to emphasize the reason Jesus taught the model prayer. He does this by using the word “hypocrite” in the top and bottom slices of the sandwich.

Chapter six is part of Matthew’s outline of Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. It begins in chapter five, with nine Beatitudes, or “blessings.”

Two of the beatitudes have to do with righteousness.

The first reads:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)

The second reads:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10).

In the same chapter, Matthew tells us Jesus used the word a third time. He used it when he said:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

In the portion of the sermon outline which we find in the following chapter, chapter six, we find the word two more times.

In verse 1, Matthew tells us Jesus said:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

In verse 33, he tells us Jesus said:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

What would Jesus’ listeners have understood by the word righteousness”?

In the beatitudes, they would have understood righteousness as “just” behaviour. People who are treated unjustly seek justice. And people who seek justice are persecuted by people who deny justice.

In his warning to his disciples to be better than the Pharisees, Jesus may have added what Matthew reports later, in chapter 23. He tells us Jesus said:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matt. 23:27–28).

Those are strong words. When’s the last time you heard anyone say someone’s like a grave, beautiful on the outside, but rotting on the inside? When’s the last time you heard a preacher name and shame hypocrites?

The society of Jesus’ day was one in which the elites or those who wanted to join the ranks of elites, did public acts in order to be noticed, honoured, and given rewards. It’s no different today.

People still contribute to building funds. People still pay for food for sports, for festivals, for pilgrimages. People still lead prayers in public. People still support orphanages. All for the wrong reasons.

Wrong because it’s all part of trade.

Trade in Datukships, contracts, kickbacks, pardons; trade to escape investigation and prosecution; trade to get special treatment in jails; trade to get reductions in fines and prison terms.[1]

Jesus warns us not to do as they do. He says to those who go by the name “Christian,” the words the lectionary asks us to ponder at this time:

… when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The righteous act justly. And they give to the needy.

Not because they want something in return from the world. But because they are driven, motivated – by God – to restore balance in the world, to establish the kingdom of God. Because that’s what people who sit at the Lord’s table do. Because they’re transfiguration people.

Peace be with you.

[1]  Currently, Malaysia is awash with hypocritical comments justifying special treatment for “high profile individuals,” a term used by the Chief Justice of Malaysia (CJ) in a lament she included in a speech she made on 10 January 2024.
You can read about the public’s concerns over the state of the rule of law in Malaysia by scanning Projek Sama’s statement dated 8 February (link). It includes a link to the text of the CJ’s speech. This paragraph from Projek Sama’s statement gives a flavour of public concern over justice:
“If anyone walks free, it must be because they have proved their innocence before the courts. Not by short circuiting the criminal justice system through political negotiations, by having the public prosecutor withdraw charges (resulting in DAA, [“Discharge Amounting to Acquittal”] or DNAA, [“Discharge Not Amounting to Acquittal”]) or by the public prosecutor failing to prosecute expeditiously, professionally, and diligently.”

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