“You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth. Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonour God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.””
Romans 2:17-24 NLT
Paul continues in his rant about the Jewish Christians in Rome. He points out that they have the benefit of knowing what righteous living is all about because they have been schooled in the Law from an early age. The problem is that this seems to have introduced feelings of arrogance. Paul points out to them that they know all about the Law, they rely on it, he says, and therefore they claim to “know what is right”, claims added to because they know their special heritage. They are now all puffed up with their knowledge and assumed standing before God, and are convinced that they can act as examples to the Gentiles around them, teaching them all about God. Live like us and do what we do, they say, and you won’t go far wrong.
But Paul points out to them that they need to get their own lives in order before they can take the moral high ground and teach others. And he finishes these verses with the damning indictment that because of their hypocrisy, the very people they are trying to be an example to are taking the view that if this behaviour has God’s blessing then they want nothing to do with it. The classic trap the Jewish Christians had fallen into was the one described in the familiar line, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say”. Has anyone ever heard a parent say that? Or someone else in authority?
Jesus had a run-in with the Pharisees over this very problem. They started off by asking Him for the reason why His disciples didn’t follow the Jewish traditions of things like hand washing. Jesus’s response was, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:7-8). And as usual, the finger of the Master landed right on the issue.
Hypocrisy is an easy trap to fall into. As an example, someone I knew once stuck a fish symbol on the boot of his car, advertising the fact that he was a Christian. But one day he drove in a hurry through a small village, significantly exceeding the speed limit, and causing dismay to the locals. He stopped a few miles further on for petrol, and one of the cars he had overtaken in the village pulled up behind him. The driver got out and proceeded to point out to my friend that if he was going to advertise his Christian faith, he needed to do it in more ways than just putting a sticker on his car (or words to that effect). But of course such a problem would never arise with us pilgrims, would it? Our driving manners are exemplary, aren’t they?
We read what Jesus thought about hypocrisy in His Sermon on the Mount. We read in Matthew 7:3-5, “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye“. And this is the theme Paul took up in His letter to the Roman Jewish Christians.
A common objection from people who turn down an invitation to a church service is that the building is full of hypocrites. That may or may not be true, but the world’s perception of Christians has been tarnished by the behaviour of some, hopefully just a few. The people in our secular societies look on, expecting more from Christians than perhaps they should. They observe one Christian behaving badly and straight away decide all Christians are the same. We know that we are “work in progress” but that’s no excuse if our behaviour causes those around us to stumble.
Most people’s view of Jesus can only be obtained by observing His followers. We pilgrims need to bear that in mind the next time our right foot on the gas pedal feels a bit heavy.
Dear Father God. We are “work in progress” we know, but that is not an excuse for sinful behaviour. We are so grateful for your patience and grace – where would we be without it! Amen.