Hungry hypocrites on Halloween

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30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Oct. 27, 2013
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18; Ps 34; 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In just a few days, this Thursday evening, the streets will be filled with hypocrites! Lots of little hypocrites—and maybe some bigger ones too.

It might seem strange to call them hypocrites, when that isn’t how we normally use the word! But it isn’t inaccurate, when we think of where the word comes from, directly from the Greek hypocritēs, which originally meant “stage-actor.” For those actors pretended to be someone else—wearing different clothes, sometimes speaking through a mask—and from there the word also took on the meaning that we use today.

And the hypocrites roaming our streets will all be strangely hungry! Hungry pirates, hungry princesses, hungry famous athletes—all hungry for treats. But some of the characters that they dress up as will also be hungry in themselves, especially those figures that represent death or some shadow version of life: zombies hungry for brains; vampires thirsty for blood; ghosts and skeletons in some way lacking and longing for the full human life that they used to have. Hungry hypocrites indeed!

Of course, we usually speak of hypocrites as being the other way around: not healthy, lively children pretending to be dead creatures; but people who are morally bad or lacking inside putting on an outward appearance of being much better than they are.

Who then is the hypocrite in the story that we hear from our Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel reading? For we have two figures:

  • The Pharisee, who would seem likely to be the hero that someone might want to dress up as, since the Pharisees were people who wanted to really know the Law of God and to live it out in every way; and
  • The Tax Collector, who might be the villain that someone would want to dress up as. For this was someone who had sold out his people, by working to collect taxes for the occupying Roman Empire; and often someone who enriched himself by using his position to take money for himself personally from his fellow Jews.

But it is the Pharisee who turns out to be the hypocrite in the story. This is strange, considering that he isn’t putting on appearances for other people, but is speaking to God, who surely he does not expect to fool. How do we see his hypocrisy?

  • We notice that he says that he is not “greedy, dishonest, adulterous”—and we have no reason to think that he is lying. And, of course, it is a good thing if he does not love material things too much, if he is honest in his words and dealings with others, if he is faithful to his wife. That is all good.
  • But where the hypocrisy comes in is when he says that he is “not like the rest of humanity.” Because he is like the rest of humanity! Even if he does not fall into those particular sins, he still profoundly shares so much with other human beings.

And this is where his hypocrisy comes in. He is putting on a false front not primarily for others or for God; rather, he has been fooled himself.

In his humanity, he shares with other human beings, with us, a profound hunger. And what is he hungry for? Well, we can say that:

  1. First, he is hungry for God. Like each of us, he has been created in the Image and Likeness of God. He has been created with the capacity to know and love God, which is amazing, surpassing any other bodily creature. And because he has been made with that capacity, he also has that need—so that we can speak of a “God-shaped vacuum” inside us that can only be filled with the infinite, loving Creator. He has this infinite hunger.
  2. He also needs cleansing and forgiveness. For, like us, he inherited human nature tainted by the stain of the original sin of Adam and Eve. He was born without the harmony that he should have had with God and with other people; and he was born with an inclination to personal sin that surely he had carried out many times.
  3. And he needs to grow in goodness. We can tell, just from what Jesus says in this little story, that he lacks compassion; and surely there are other things that he lacks in goodness, love, holiness, generosity. Surely he needs to grow and improve in many ways.

But where will he ever look to fill these needs, to meet these hungers? Perhaps we could again think of the figure of the skeleton, only bones, lacking full human life. And that can call to mind the famous vision of the Prophet Ezekiel that is found in chapter 37 of his book (37:1-14). In that vision, the Lord shows him a valley full of dry bones lying around; and he asks him, “Son of man, can these bones come to life?” And he directs Ezekiel to speak prophetically to the bones, so that the bones come together, and then sinews and muscles, and then finally the spirit enters them and they are once again living beings. And the Lord explains this vision saying: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them… I will put my spirit in you that you may live…”

This is the power to give life and to satisfy hunger that the Lord has. And we notice that the Tax Collector receives that power—as our Lord Jesus said that he went home justified, whereas the Pharisee did not. Because the Tax Collector knew his need and admitted it and stood with open hands, saying simply, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”; whereas the Pharisee was convinced that he had no need, and so he was not open to receive the healing power that the Lord wanted to give him.

How can we receive this life, this power, from the Lord? Certainly in the sacrament of Baptism, by which he unites people to himself and washes them clean and gives them new life. But this only happens once. And after that? Then there is the sacrament that brings the dead to life: Confession. When we enter there, perhaps we speak the very words used by the Tax Collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And we let our masks fall, in this truest place on earth: we do not act as our defense attorney, as the Pharisee did, but rather as the prosecuting attorney accusing ourselves, truthfully, of the sins that we have committed. And we receive, not condemnation, but mercy and forgiveness and healing and the grace that we need to grow and be better in the future. We receive the mind of Christ; we receive life; we receive his own Body and Blood.

And thus we walk with the saints. After the hypocrites roam our streets on Thursday, we will all come back here on Friday for All Saints Day, when we will remember all those who let down their masks and opened their hands and received the grace Christ wanted to give them, so that they grew profoundly in him. In them we see the hunger satisfied; in them we see what Christ will make us, when we let him.

“Oh when the saints go marching in
oh when the saints go marching in
Lord I want to be in that number
oh when the saints go marching in.”

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