Christianity, Sinners, and Hypocrisy
A young monk once prayed to God for patience. That day, the abbot told the monk that a visitor would need to share his room. The new roommate barged in through the door, threw down his pack, and immediately began to criticize and curse the young monk. This went on day after day. Finally, the monk bolted out of his cell, fell on his knees, and looked up to heaven: “My God, I asked for patience, not for a new roommate!”
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat” (Mt. 13:24-26).
There are few needs in life as indispensable as community. For most of history, men and women had no option but to live in a tight knit community. Imported goods were a luxury. Nearly everything needed in daily life had to be provided by the town smith or tailor. They did not have telephones or the internet. In order to maintain family and friendships, they had to live within walking distance of one another. Instead of zoom meetings or online chat groups, that had to meet face to face, listen to one another’s voices, and smell each other’s body odor. The community centered around the church, with its bells, holy days, and values which functioned as a sort of metronome. All of this glued people together despite their differences, shortcomings, and annoying habits.
Today, we do not do community very well. Modernity has brought us a lot of good things. It has also severed the original ties in community life. Nothing forces us to stick together. We no longer learn how to put up with the same people day after day, week after week. We can retreat, anytime we like, into our own self-centered, little worlds. This has consequences in our Christian life. Many people today stop going to church altogether or bounce back and forth from communities, because they are offended by someone or are sensitive to hypocrisy. It is much more comfortable running away than learning to forgive and accommodate. Yet, this is a tragedy. The Church has always been a place of saints and sinners. True Christianity is healing precisely because true Christianity is true community. We are healed, transformed, and saved because of one another, with all our strengths and all our weaknesses.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Pr. 27:17).
We have a problem in the Church: people. So often, a new Christian is enamored with the gospel, but quickly disenchanted because of the people. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought about Christianity. He replied: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” Christ’s words are profound:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.”
There is such a wealth of beauty in the Church. The Church has truth. In a society where laws and ethics are warped by politicians and media, the Church is a refuge for sanity. The Church has purity. In a culture that grounds its morality on the belief that man is no more than an evolved ape, the Church offers us a sanctuary for love and respect. The Church has saints. In a world where all of us have baggage and dysfunction, the Church reminds us that even the greatest sinners can become the greatest saints. The life, the art, the culture, the soul of Christianity, when our eyes are open to see it, is without any doubt the most marvelous reality on earth.
The Church is good, but the people can stink.
‘Someone sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.”
This is the disappointing reality. God sows the good seeds, but the enemy sows the weeds. There is an important catch here. “Everybody was asleep.” In his commentary, St. Isodore writes: “Whence is it that evil thoughts come forth from the heart, and defile a man? (Mt. 15:19). Doubtless, because the laborers are asleep who should be keeping watch, so as to safeguard and preserve the fruits of the good seed that is growing up.” We need to be alert. St. Peter says this best: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt. 5:8). When we are not wearing “the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:10) we are prone to say all kinds of stupid things, to hurt people, or to fail to love those around us. When we sleep, the devil gets busy, and nothing excites him as much as to stir up and divide community.
“And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”
Scandals and hypocrisy are always nearby. Our greatest role models disappoint. We want to cry out to God: “Is this it? Can’t you see the problems! Won’t you do anything about it?” Or, like the slaves of the master, we think we will fix the problems in those around us.
“Do you want us to go and gather [the weeds]?” But the master replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
God allows the good, the bad, and the ugly to live together because we need one another. It is nice when everyone is getting along — I like it — but the real healing happens when the road gets bumpy. When someone annoys us or offends us, that is when we get a chance to grow. When we have an opportunity, a need, to humble ourselves, to forgive, and love, that is when Christianity is working. The Church saves us not because the people are perfect, but because they are flawed. St. Augustine describes the Church, ”Many are correcting themselves, like Peter; many are forborne, like Judas; many will not be exposed until the coming of the Lord, Who will illumine that which is concealed in darkness and will disclose the thoughts of the heart.” There are problems in the Church. There are problems in the people around us. What do we need to do about it? It was all said in our Epistle reading today:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:12-17).
Community is indispensable. Community is at the heart of God, and we become like God by learning to be community. Meanwhile, true community has never been so threatened as it is in our times. Marriages are broken apart. Families are separated. Neighborhoods no longer know one another. Smartphones and internet chats have robbed us of the art of face to face relationships. Covid-19 and politics have buried us in deeper isolation. The world is dying for lack of community. We, the Church, are the world’s hope, and it all starts right here in our little community.