A word about the word ‘hypocrite’. We all know what the word means: someone pretending to be something they are not. Jesus was pretty harsh about hypocrisy, calling out for example those who go on about the tiny faults of others when they have major ones of their own – those who like to point out the tiny speck of dust in the eye of someone else when they have an entire tree trunk in their own!
We might be able to think of people who display this tendency.
St Matthew is the gospel-writer who records Jesus using the word ‘hypocrite’ the most. And there might be a very good explanation for that which might help us remember the distinctive character of his Gospel. ‘Hypocrite’ is the Greek word for ‘actor’. All the New Testament is written in Greek, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world of the day, and generally it is fairly tolerant of all things Greek – apart from idolatry, of course – because it is mainly about how the message of, and about, Jesus speaks into that world. Hence all the focus on St Paul’s missionary journeys. But St Matthew’s Gospel stands out. It has long been noticed that it values many of the things distinctive to Judaism, which St Paul and others sought to soften in their attempt to engage with wider culture.
One very famous example is that, in St Matthew’s Gospel, there is great store put by the laws and traditions associated with Moses, whereas in the other Gospels and St Paul, the emphasis is more on an inner spirit, more like conscience, through which God guides people into virtuous and godly behaviour. But another is St Mathew’s attack on one of Greece’s great institutions, the theatre, in which people wear masks, pretend to be someone else, and simply perform the script given to them. Hence his prolific use of the word ‘hypocrite’ as a harsh criticism.
The hero of St Matthew’s Gospel is clearly St Peter, the simple fisherman who followed Jesus from Galilee. And the one no one could ever accuse of being an actor, as he seems to have blurted out whatever he thought, even if, as we often see in the Gospels, he has the wrong end of the stick. St Matthew’s Gospel has its feet firmly planted in the Jewish tradition.
This is quite important background, I think, to engaging with any of the passages or parables we come across in Matthew’s Gospel. That includes today’s parable, familiarly known as the parable of the talents but which equally plausibly could be called the parable of the slaves or even better the parable of the ruthless boss.
In Jesus’ Jewish context, rich people were routinely seen as not necessarily admirable. Unlike the Greeks, the Jewish people would never have come up with a word, like aristos, which could conflate social status with virtue. The wealthy were the main target of the prophets because of their exploitative ways, and this parable does not hold anything back. The Master in it was known to be a ‘harsh man who reaped where he did not sow’ – which, in fact, makes it even worse that the daft slave, knowing this, acts entirely out of fear and buries the money entrusted to him in a hole in the ground. It is he who is thrown out into the outer darkness.
The message is that there is good cause for fear, but burying what is entrusted to you in the ground is not the answer. This would also have probably reflected the actual context of the church of St Matthew, which seems to have still been deeply rooted in its Jewish culture but beginning to face hostility for its eccentric views from others in the community.
As in Psalm 90, one theme here is the right use of God’s gift of time and existence. Time for us human beings, frail and mortal, is contrasted with God’s eternal existence by the psalmist. In St Mathew’s Gospel, immediately after the parable of the dodgy landowner, comes the story of the last judgement, where what you actually do when faced by disturbance and need is made the big issue.
When we read the Bible we often take the words completely out of the actual world of the day. We universalise the teaching before we acknowledge its particularity. For Jesus and St Matthew, the naked who needed clothing, the sick who needed care, the stranger looking for a welcome, and the person thrown in prison (as likely for debt as anything) were not abstract but tangible everyday parts of society and experience – familiar people.
Jesus’ words ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ were an urgent reminder that one of the best uses of your precious time is kindness, now!