Jesus speaks often of the sin of hypocrisy. It certainly seems that this was one of the sins that dismayed Jesus the most. In today’s Gospel, he is rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for making a big deal of paying their tithes, but neglecting the more important part of the law: justice, mercy and fidelity.
Jesus calls the religious leaders of his day blind Pharisees and hypocrites. A hypocrite is defined as a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs and principles, that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie their stated beliefs. The Pharisees and the scribes of the time were very exacting in their interpretation of the law. And they were very careful to obey the minutest detail of that law – thus the expression, “the letter of the law.” Jesus is scolding them for doing this instead of paying attention to the more important matters of religion. They didn’t have the spirit of the law. In their misguided zeal they had lost sight of God and of his purpose for the law. If they had followed the spirit of the law, they would have understood that God didn’t want them to tithe for the sake of tithing but to care for the needy and the weak. Instead the Pharisees used their exactness in tithing and insisting on the minute regulations to think of themselves in a selfish and prideful way and to hold those who did not or who were not able to follow these standards in contempt.
Giving to the Church or to the people of God, whether through tithing or a general spirit of stewardship should always be an expression of thanksgiving and a willingness to do God’s will. The scribes, however, went to extreme lengths to tithe on insignificant things (such as tiny plants) with great mathematical accuracy but neglected the more important part of God’s commandments.
In today’s world, there is still the temptation to be hypocritical in the practice of our Faith. God does not want us to strike our breasts, make a show of spending time in prayer or use our devotions to ignore the work he has called us to. God wants us to be filled with a sense of thanksgiving as we give of ourselves in prayer and in the sharing of our time, talent and treasure. Most of all, God wants us to hear the words of His Son and be persons of “justice, mercy and fidelity.”
Mary Lou Butler is a long-time friend and partner in ministry to the Passionists in California.