So, here I am in Brooklyn this week, with the opportunity to go to mass on Ash Wednesday morning at a nearby progressive Catholic parish, an opportunity not afforded to me in my little village in Vermont. Ash Wednesday is, of course, the beginning of the season of Lent and a time for serious introspection, focusing one's life on repentance for what has past, and beginning again at trying to do good in the world.
With all of that in my mind, at mass I heard that familiar passage from the Gospel of Matthew read aloud. "Jesus said to his disciples," it begins, and goes on to say, in summary: Go and perform good deeds, and repent of your sins. Oh, and don't do it like the hypocrites.
Here's the problem: The identity of these "hypocrites" is probably misunderstood. Jesus says:
"Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them. ... When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others."
And then later, Jesus says:
"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them."
So, all of those hypocrites are in synagogues, far from where Jesus might be worshiping on a day like this. Right? No way.
Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was a rabbi. In fact, he was talking only to Jews when he said those words. This means that the correct interpretation today for the twice-repeated phrase, "as the hypocrites do in the synagogues" would be, "as the hypocrites do in the churches." The hypocrites are us.
I am among many people today energized by the explosion of information about the Jewishness of Jesus. These resources are changing how Christians and Jews relate to each other, and how Christians understand the origins of their faith. One immense, recent, insightful book is "The Jewish Annotated New Testament," which my local book group has just taken on. Thousands of Christians and Jews (our group includes both) are using it to discover the context in which Christianity was born.
How many Christians misunderstood the meaning of Jesus's teaching today? They may have walked home, to the subway, to their cars, off to work or shopping or whatever, thinking that as long as they were not like those hypocritical other people, they would be OK before God.
Here's the worst part: Perhaps they passed by a synagogue as they left church. I passed two in Brooklyn on my way back to the apartment. I wonder how many Christians thought to themselves, seeing the entrance to a synagogue, "Those Jews, they are so unlike Jesus, and so different from how Jesus asked me to be." That would be to completely misunderstand the message.
If we are going to use Jesus's teachings, during Lent or at any other time, I hope we take away that they are about how to be good 21st century Christians, not how to be bad first century Jews.
Follow Jon M. Sweeney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jonmsweeney