It’s easy to see why the historical Jesus frequently had to defend himself for hanging with “sinners.” His reform mindset automatically triggered vociferous objections from those pious individuals who scrupulously observed the harmless externals demanded of God’s people, but inwardly, as demonstrated in their relations with others, cared little about the things God really expected of them.
Jesus refers to such people as “hypocrites.” Not a bad word; it simply connotes an actor or actress: someone who can turn it on or off as the situation demands. Down deep actors are never touched or changed by the characters they portray. At least most “bad folk” are honest. What you see, you get. They aren’t actors reading from a script; they’re real. They’re the kind of people Jesus could deal with.
Amos, Scripture’s first “book prophet,” is forced to address the same problem, and, like Jesus, points it out publicly. To understand what the prophet is saying in our first reading, we must appreciate that the “new moon” and “Sabbath” are “holy days.” Amos points out that, though the good folk would never think about ignoring one of these religious periods, they can barely wait for them to be over, “that we may sell our grain. . . display the wheat,” doing so in a fraudulent way. “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating. We will buy the lowly for silver, the poor for a pair of sandals (a biblical idiom for a bribe); even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!” But of course each is a good Israelite. Each can claim, “I kept the holy days.”
Already in the late 60s, Dominic Crossan reminded us, “Reformers, like Amos and Jesus, consider a day holy (or ‘other’) not because if falls within a designated time period, but because sometime during those hours or minutes we do some good for a neighbor.” Our behavior, not a clock or calendar, creates holiness.
The author of I Timothy presumes his readers aren’t actors. Their faith operates 24/7. Our artificial division between church/state doesn’t exist for him. Even “kings and... all in authority” are the subjects of prayer. His readers’ entire lives have been changed by the faith they profess. They’re convinced “... there is one God... also one mediator between God and humans, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as ransom for all.” Their faith in Jesus doesn’t just touch a handful of their actions; it completely alters who they are.
In today’s gospel pericope, Luke’s Jesus reminds his audience that evil people often spend more time and exert more energy carrying out their evil plans than the good exert and spend in doing good. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What they do flows from who they actually are, not from who they’re pretending to be. Because of that character trait, the historical Jesus discovered much more day by day creativity in sinners than he found in the good. And he couldn’t resist pointing it out.
Biblical prophets, like Jesus and Amos, simply can’t understand the turn it on, turn it off world most religious people create for themselves. That’s why Luke has Jesus emphatically state his counter-belief: “No servant can serve two masters. He or she will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and dishonest wealth.”
As I mentioned two weeks ago, God expects all God’s people to make consistent, free choices. Today our sacred authors remind us what kind of real people our free choices for good can create for and in us.