“Then Jesus said, ‘Woe to you, you hypocrites! … You say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’” – Matthew 23:29-31
Hypocrisy comes in many varieties. Here, Jesus nails one we’ll call “presentism”—the conviction that because we live in the present we’re better than people who lived in the past. They were simple. We are sophisticated. They were unenlightened. We know better. They did awful things. We would never do what they did. Thank God for us, who get things right! Thank God for the present and its perfections!
Now, it’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way on many moral fronts. To have acquired even a shaky grasp of the depths of our racism, for example, is far better than the willful denial of past generations. Still, nothing guarantees that if push came to shove we’d behave any differently than they did. It’s hypocrisy, Jesus says, to be certain that we would.
I like to think that if I’d been faced with a fateful choice, like whether to stone a prophet, or hide Jews from the SS, I’d have chosen the side of the angels. But it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if I’d hurled a really big rock, or turned in all the Jews I could find. I believe I’m capable of it, even today.
Not even Mother Teresa was confident of her virtue. Once, after being lauded as a living saint by a pious devotee, the old nun tartly replied that, be that as it may, there was still a Nazi sleeping in her soul. I know what she means.
Jesus, when push comes to shove, I’m no better than anybody else, dead or living. Don’t let me doubt it. Amen.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.