These two passages – because they are addressing two different situations, two different crowds, two different times – appear to not have a lot in common until you get to the “punch line” of each reading … “I desire mercy, or steadfast love, and not sacrifice.”
Today we will discuss what that means. It gets down to what Hosea was dealing with during his time, and Jesus was dealing with when He confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees, particularly in this scene: hypocrisy.
The word “hypocrite” actually means “actor.” It goes back to the time of the Greek comedies and tragedies in which they would wear masks – like the frown and smile masks we are familiar with. The actors were being hypocrites, and acting is hypocrisy.
When I was growing up, I used to watch this futuristic cartoon show entitled, The Jetsons. I don’t remember many episodes, but there’s one scene I will never forget. Jane Jetson, the mother, wife of George, was talking on the telephone. The telephone was also a television! [What was then futuristic, we can now do!] As she wrapped up the conversation and the telephone screen went blank, she took off a mask and her face wasn’t made up and her hair wasn’t fixed. She had been wearing a mask that made her appear that she had it all together, that she looked good early in the morning. That’s hypocrisy.
Here is Webster’s definition of hypocrisy: “Playing a part on the stage; an outward show; the act or practice of pretending to be what one is not, or to have principles or beliefs that one does not really have.” The false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion, may admit that our conventional morality often serves as a cover.
You see, we want to look like everyone else in America. And, at least allegedly, we live in a Judeo-Christian society; and the morality is common, by and large based on the Ten Commandments. Most people in this country assume they are basically “religious” or “good,” but we all are hiding behind a mask. We hide behind masks in our marriages, in our families and ur emotional lives; we believe we’re carrying it off, but who are we kidding? Other people? Are we trying to kid God? Actually, what we are good at is denial. We can kid ourselves until reality smacks us in the face.
Hosea and Jesus challenged hypocrisy. During their day, hypocrisy masked itself in doing good things, in being moral, in being “good people.” That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Hypocrisy masked itself in being “religious.” There is another example in the gospel of
Real faith is not about masks. Real faith is about steadfast love that cuts to the heart, that transforms the life, which is what Hosea and Jesus were driving at. The Great Physician, the Good Physician, is offering a cure – a radical cure. The procedure, in many ways, is simple. Just like a heart surgeon will tell you a procedure is simple. It’s painful, its scary, it’s life-threatening – but it’s simple. Chemotherapy is simple in terms of procedure. They drip chemicals into you to deal with a chemical problem; but it’s radical, and it almost kills you.
When Jesus talks about transformation and change He is saying you can no longer wear a mask; you can no longer stay in denial about the failures and pain and sin of your life. You can no longer play the game of looking moral and looking like you have it together. This is about steadfast love; this is about a consistent relationship; this is about a marriage. Marriage changes your life and changes your priorities and changes how you plan your time. That’s what faith is meant to do!
In the passage following the gospel reading, Jesus talks about patching an old cloth and filling wineskins. He describes how new wine in old skins will burst the skins. In other words, when the new wine of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit breaks into our lives, it is not “business as usual.” We must change, and the change is radical.
I think the Hosea reading describes how this process might look in our lives. We must first acknowledge our guilt and be willing to seek God’s face. Put another way: the first word out of Jesus’ mouth is repentance. We need to change. We need to admit we need to change. But if we think “I can fake it, I can look good, I can play the part,” then we’ve missed it. We need to willingly acknowledge that we need to change. Not conventional morality, not religiosity, change. And seek God’s face. The word there implies an intimate relationship … you know this person whom you say you know.
It’s amazing how many people say to me, “I’m a religious person.” I wonder what that means! Often I think they are speaking to my collar (I wear a clergy shirt most days). Or they say, “I’m basically a good person,” which usually means they didn’t kill anyone last week or rob a bank! This is not about being “a religious person” or “basically a good person.” It’s saying we have a need, a desperate need that goes down to our heart and soul and cries out that we need to change, and we can’t do it. But the way that it will happen is by coming to know the Lord face-to-face, intimately – His Spirit breaking into our hearts and transforming our lives. That’s what this is all about.
Later in the passage, “Let us press on to know the Lord.” Not casually, not if it’s convenient, not if it’s easy, not if it fits into my world. Pressing on means intentionality,commitment, a transformed lifestyle in which this is not “a” priority, it’s “the” priority of our lives; it sets the course for the rest of our lives.
Hosea draws this out a little more: “What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud; like the dew that goes away early,” That sounds so sweet and poetic. Let me tell you what it means. A morning cloud is a little airy cloud that’s there briefly before the sun burns it away. In other words, many people have good intentions when it comes to faith because they think they can get away with tokenism. And if that’s the attitude of your life and your faith, any time that something inconvenient comes along or challenges you, or a struggle comes into your life, “That’s it! God doesn’t love me; I’m outta here.” Or, “I can do something else with my time.”
Let me give you another example that I hear and see frequently. “We had company this Sunday and I just couldn’t get to church.” Or, “Our company just left on Saturday and oh, it was so nice to have a break, so we slept in.” “It’s raining, who wants to go out on a day like today?” Or, “What a gorgeous morning! Who wants to spend it inside?” There’s always some excuse.
Don’t misunderstand, Sunday worship is not the be-all-and-end-all of faith. But if we really believe we need the regular doctor visit, The Physician, in our lives, then this is a priority. If we truly believe that faith is a marriage relationship and Jesus is, as He calls Himself, the Bridegroom, then this is a priority – it sets the tone for the rest of our week and the rest of our lives. Every morning we start off with time with the Lord, and every evening we end with time with the Lord. Because we love Him. This is not duty; this is not actions – it is a love relationship; it’s a commitment that changes our lives.
Both readings conclude with, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” – knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. You might ask, “What does this mean? Who is Hosea talking about? How are lay people supposed to know this stuff?” The issue is, do you care? Do you care enough to know? It’s what one spouse might say to the other; it’s what a parent might say to a child and vice versa: do you care enough to know? If this is really God’s word – if we say that our faith is about steadfast love – steadfast love – then we should care. We should want to know. We should want to know Him. We will want to seek His face. We want our faith to be alive – not just about religion, not just about morality and right actions, and certainly not about tokenism or conventional faith – an alive faith! A living faith! A loving faith! A relationship that penetrates and transforms and sets our priorities.
Last weekend our family decided to rent a movie. We chose one entitled, “The Cure,” about a little boy who contracts AIDS through a blood transfusion. (Parents, preview this movie first if you have young children.) The boy and his mother, a single parent, move from one town to another because of the stigma attached to them. In the new neighborhood the little boy next door is curious about this boy with AIDS and eventually they develop a tremendous friendship. What’s interesting is what they go on to do: the little boy next door decades he will help his newfound friend find a cure for AIDS. Their first thought is maybe a strict diet of candy; so they try that, but it doesn’t work. Next they make a tea from leaves they have gathered in the woods, but it doesn’t work either. I won’t tell you the conclusion – it is a heart-wrenching movie – but the cure is not of a physical nature. The cure is the relationship.
Somehow we don’t realize that when it comes to faith. All of us are dying physically; some of you are dying spiritually. The cure comes from the Great Physician, and it’s a relationship – a relationship that penetrates your heart and transforms your life. Anybody can sacrifice; anybody can. Anybody can do good things; anybody can. Anybody can do well-timed religion, anybody can be a conventional moral American. But we’re talking about steadfast love that changes your heart and your life. “I desire mercy. I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.”
Go and learn what this means. That’s the call of our faith.
Gregory J. Kronz is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Hilton Head Island, SC.