The Piety Gap (or Woe to You Hippocrates) refers to the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and the holier than thou Christians of our time. It is about those who bemoan the faithlessness of others while missing the crucial obstacles to faith in their own lives. Fr. Michael reminds us that Jesus’ Gospel is a Gospel of mercy.
Gospel: Luke 11:42-46
The Lord said:
“Woe to you Pharisees!
You pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb,
but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God.
These you should have done, without overlooking the others.
Woe to you Pharisees!
You love the seat of honor in synagogues
and greetings in marketplaces.
Woe to you!
You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.”
Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply,
“Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.”
And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law!
You impose on people burdens hard to carry,
but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.”
Homily Transcript — The Piety Gap
Jesus is in familiar territory here in today’s gospel from Luke chapter 11, going after the gap between what the Pharisees preached and what they practiced. I sometimes call that the piety gap. It’s easy to talk the game, but to live it is another reality. The Pharisees were great talkers and they were all into outward show of their religion, but what Jesus continuously points out is the lack of good fruit within their lives; the good fruit that St. Paul is talking about in our first reading from his letter to the Galatians.
St. Paul, who was a master of the law—nobody knew the law better than St. Paul—experienced this profound conversion of the love of Jesus coming into his heart and he said it’s not about following the details of the law, it’s about bearing good fruit in your life. There’s no law against that.
Over at the Bellarmine retreat house I hear lots of confessions for our retreatants who come for days of prayer and for weekend retreats, and I’m amazed at how many people come and have a hard time coming up with anything to confess. These of course are people who are trying to grow in grace. I think St. Paul gives us something to meditate on in terms of examining our own consciences. His list is certainly not exhaustive but he said the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality of any kind, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of anger, acts of selfishness, dissensions, in-fighting factions, envy of every kind, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and the like. If we can’t find ourselves in one of that list, I suspect were not looking in the mirror sufficiently hard. Paul’s list is not exhaustive.
There are two kinds of sins. There’s sins of action and there’s sins of in action. St. Paul is listing these sins of action but then he goes on and he names the fruits of the spirit and if those are not sufficiently in evidence within our lives we might call those sins of in action. The fruits of the spirit he names: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. To what extent are we giving evidence of those in our life? If we look in the mirror and we don’t see those actions daily manifest in our lives, brothers and sisters that’s sin. It’s not just what we do what, but it’s also what what we don’t do in this examination. When we find ourselves looking in this mirror of truth, we pray for the grace to see ourselves as God sees us.
Too often we make excuses for ourselves and we’re really hard on judging others. That was the sin of the Scribes and the Pharisees and the scholars of the law that Jesus got angry at. The scribes and the Pharisees looked out and they could pick apart those in their congregations that were not following the letter of the law but they were blind to seeing their own hypocrisy. Jesus never got angry at those who were truly repentant but he got very angry on numerous occasions—as recorded in the Scripture—at those who stood in their own self-righteousness and looked down their noses at others.
I was talking to one gentleman that I’ve known very well. He styles himself as a conservative Catholic Christian and I’ve had many conversations with him about how our culture is not living the faith, how his children are not living the faith, how this new generation is not living the faith and those are true. But then he had a situation arise within his own life where he bent the law to his own advantage.
He found a liberal priest who agreed with him and he said, “My conscience is clean.” I said, “Your conscience is clean, okay great, but what about all these other people that you’ve been criticizing? We’ve had numerous conversations where you pointed out the flaws in this and that person and it angers you and it frustrates you because they’re not living the faith and then when it’s to your advantage to bend the rules you’re right there to bend the rules and you find somebody who says, ‘Okay, yeah.’ And you say, ‘My conscience is clean.’ If you can bend the rules for yourself and stand with a clean conscience why can’t you cut a little slack for someone else who’s in a difficult situation? Who’s in a troubled marriage? Who’s struggling with their economic situation? who’s struggling to understand what’s going on and the complexities of life?”
Life has a way of beating us up. Our gospel is about mercy. We all want mercy for ourselves and yet this is the sin of the Scribes and Pharisees. They wanted mercy for themselves but they looked out at others and that was the Law. ‘This is the law we’ve got to abide by it.’ I’m all for laws but when we recognize that none of us—and this is St. Paul’s point—none of us follow the law perfectly. The laws have to be administered with mercy.
One of the struggles in the early Christian community, was what do you do with Christians who defect in the face of persecution? Today we celebrate the feast of Ignatius of Antioch, one of the great heroes of the early church, because he was ordered from Syria to Rome and it was a long hard journey. In the midst of that, he had lots of sufficient motivation to be able to recant and to say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be a Christian.’ But he was heroic. He encouraged people along the way as he walked his way to his death, knowing that he was going to have a terrible death, thrown to the lions and his body ripped apart. But he never wavered in his faith and he encouraged others, a little bit of suffering now for eternal glory.
Not everybody was as strong as Ignatius of Antioch in the face of Roman persecution. The Romans didn’t want martyrs. What they wanted was people to defect from the faith. They would strip them of their property first; take away their their livelihood, make it impossible for them to pay their bills, to support their family. If that didn’t work then they would separate them from their family, throw them into isolation. If that didn’t work then they would beat them up, throw them into flogging. Then, and only then, if they couldn’t break them would they order them to be executed.
They wouldn’t execute them right away. They would let them languish in jail, knowing that a terrible fate would would await them. The Romans wanted people to say, ‘Okay, I’m not a Christian. I don’t believe in Christ.’ Those were the ones the Romans held up. ‘See! They defected. They denied Christ. How about you?’
Ignatius of Antioch was one who said, ‘No. Let’s remain strong.’ What about those people who defected for the faith? This was a crisis in the early church because when those people repented of their sin and they wanted to come back to the early Christian community, the hardliners said, ‘No. You can’t come back in. You humiliated us. You shamed us. My brother, my cousin, my child, was executed for the faith and you, you defected the faith, you discouraged us, you gave us scandal. You can’t come back in. You’re not sufficient.’
This was a crisis in the early church. Eventually the church came down on the side of mercy. If a person repents and they’re sincere, the gospel of Christ is mercy. Let’s welcome them back in and pray they can remain strong.
As we read these readings today, let’s pray for the grace to be able to see ourselves in the mirror of truth; to see ourselves and our own shortcomings at least as honestly as we see the shortcomings of those around us, but to know that the Lord looks with compassion upon us. He takes no delight in condemning us. What he wants is for his mercy to bear the fruits of the spirit. Let’s pray for those fruits: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and the greatest, love.