I think I have confessed to you before a secret passion for the programme River City. This might seem a bit unusual for a priest to confess at a Sunday Mass such a love for a TV programme – especially when it is not exactly Late Call, it’s not Songs of Praise nor is it the Daily Service. But the reason I like it is because it is easy to get caught up in the family and community dimensions of the programme and the way that people try to sort out their problems and the way that they wrestle to find themselves, be themselves, be a family and help one another. It can be a bit gritty, a bit earthy, a bit close to the bone, not very Christian you would say, but it reflects life. One of the thing that I particularly like about it most is that it is so Scottish, the characters are really Scottish, their accents, their way of speaking and the situations are real to me. I am hooked. Don’t call the chapel house on a Tuesday night between 8-9.
The programme employs something I notice which is age old. That device where someone says something and is thinking the opposite. Says they are going to do something and is actually in reality doing something very different. Someone pretends to be someone and is not like that at all. The character says he loves him/her and actually loves someone else; tells someone that they are going to sell someone something and ends up selling it to someone else. It leaves us gasping at the deceit.
Literature and theatre have used that device for centuries. Greek actors very often appeared on stage with a range of masks and wearing each mask they would demonstrate a range of emotions. But in wearing some of these they would appear to be something to those that they speaking when they would be thinking the opposite or acting completely different. They came to call this devise hypocrite – it entered into the language to mean that person who appears to be something but is someone else, whole holds certain values and acts differently, who is said to profess something but doesn’t do what they believe.
In the Gospel Jesus uses this word hypocrite to the crowds. It will be used a further 19 times in the Gospels. It comes to mean those who say they believe in something and act differently. Those who have certain values and don’t live by them. Those who appear to be honest and yet are robbers. Those who appear to be truthful and yet are liars. Those who appear to be kind and yet who are mean.
It comes to embody that chasm between what we are supposed to be and what we are. What we believe and how we act. What we say we are about and what we are in actual fact. The distance between our thoughts and actions, our desires and our deeds.
Very often in the Gospel the Lord ferrets out hypocrisy in the religious people of his day. Very often almost with Xray eyes he is able to look into people’s hearts and see what they really think. Very often with a surgeons scalpel he is able to get right to the heart of the matter, right to the core of the problem with a word, with an image, with a sentence.
It’s one if the worst words in the human language. To be described as a hypocrite is to deliver a judgment that a person is not true, that they are not real, that what they appear to be is not what they really are. Worse than any swear word aimed in our direction, it strips us of what we would most of all like to be, real, authentic, true, trustworthy.
I suppose our Lord’s words touch a raw nerve in all of us. We aim high but we don’t always get there. We aspire to be something but we don’t always reach it. The gap between what we set out to be and what we are always seems too great.
People outside religion are always saying the same about people, its all hypocricey. Its hard to hear that, but in a certain sense it has a true ring to it. People fall out as much here as they do elsewhere. There is just as much anger here as there is elsewhere. There can be just as much anger and gossip here as there is elsewhere. But the life is meant to narrow that gap between what we say and what we do, what we profess and the way that we act.
But I think there is something else in the hypocrisy of religious people. It is that sense of superiority. Because they have a religion and a faith they can often justify their actions, they can separate themselves from the consequences and they fool themselves that they can step up to a higher plane. They become blind to their faults, blind to the gap which grows between their words and their actions. They don’t see the hypocrisy, the double-dealing, and the slight of hand. There is a greater danger in the religious hypocrite – they see the skelf in someone else’s eye but miss the plank in their own.
Who can live with that withering judgment of the Lord? The crowd can judge the skies and the weather but can’t judge the signs of the times all around them. Jesus notes. They know commerce and the price of things but don’t know real values. They go go to the synagogue and act inappropriately as if thy have learned nothing. Who can live with that withering judgment of the Lord? Who can live with the one who sees the gap between what we believe and what we do and are.
It makes us realise that we are even more in need of his grace and mercy to bring together what we believe with what we do and are.