Jesus warned of how religion can serve as a mask. He said:

Woe to you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of death. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside are full of hypocrisy.

Matthew 23:27-28

Today, a hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another, but, in Jesus’ day, the word came from the masks Greek actors wore to represent the emotions they wished to depict on stage. The actors hid behind the masks so their faces would not betray the truth. Jesus said it was like decorating a grave to hide the contents.

The church has focused too often on the external behavior of people, but Jesus focused on our internal state. Not many years ago, a fundamentalist preacher might wave his Bible and say, with all seriousness, that there couldn’t be a dancing foot and a praying knee on the same leg.

Even today in many churches moralistic behavior is still more the focus than true morality. I so appreciated the words of Pope Francis this week. Many churches have been obsessed with what they consider sexual sin but silent about systems of greed and inequality. Today these churches are more likely to rail against gay marriage than against this week’s vote to take food from 3.8 million of the working poor, elderly, and disabled.

Religion often has strange ideas of what is sinful. Jesus seemed to suspect that too little of our religion focused on transforming our souls.

Today, I imagine our masks are less likely to be religious piety and more likely to be Gucci or Armani. Jesus must have anticipated having us for disciples because he told a story about a farmer who accumulated a lot, but neglected his own soul. Jesus called him a fool.

You and I aren’t rich farmers, but we do use success, possessions, and money to make us feel good about ourselves. They are masks that can cover the scars beneath for only a little while.

In his sermon A Knock at Midnight, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

This farmer was a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He was a fool because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. He made no contributions to civil rights but looked at suffering humanity and simply wasn’t concerned.

The farmer hid from the pain of the world behind the mask of his own material success. When he came to the end of his life God removed the rich man’s mask and no one was there. His soul had been consumed by his consumption, and Jesus said that was a foolish choice.

By Micheal Piazza
Co-Executive Director
The Center for Progressive Renewal

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