The readings in Chapel this week focus on an important ethical concern: the problem of hypocrisy which affects us all. The passage from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain contains the famous parable of “the blind learning the blind,” an account of hypocrisy. It means judging others while removing yourself from judgement. As Jesus says, we are quick to point out “the mote” – a mere speck of dust – in someone else’s eye while utterly oblivious of “the beam” – like a two-by-four – in our own eye.
The image of the blind leading the blind is by no means unique to Christianity. Siddhartha Gautama, for instance, uses the same image to criticise the Brahmin or priestly teaching caste of Hinduism. It belongs, in other words, to the emergence of Buddhism.
The passage from Luke is a strong reminder of the necessity of self-criticism and self-reflection as the counter to our judgmentalism and condemnation of others. The parable is told to highlight the need for mercy and compassion as distinct from judgement and condemnation. “Be ye merciful.” That belongs, as we saw last week, to the higher qualities of human character and life; it is God’s mercy at work in us. This draws us closer to one another as friends and equals rather than as enemies. The story from Luke is wonderfully complemented by the beginning of one of “the finest short stories in world literature” (New Annotated Oxford Bible with the Apocrypha, RSV), the story of Susanna and the Elders read in the Grade 11 and 12 Chapel services.
That story, too, is about the hypocrisy of those in leadership. From the outset, we are told that “iniquity came forth from Babylon, from elders who were judges, who were supposed to govern the people.” The whole story, so compactly and powerfully told, belongs to later additions to The Book of Daniel written in Greek sometime in the second or first century BC. It is simply told and yet there is a considerable degree of sophistication and depth to it. The two elders lust after the beautiful Susanna. They seek to seduce her by blackmailing her: give in to our lust or we will say that you were alone with a young man, caught in adultery, as it were. An obvious misuse of power, an abuse and a matter of utter hypocrisy, they are essentially accusing her of what they themselves intend. The famous story of the encounter between Jesus and the woman accused of adultery draws upon this story.
But is Susanna simply a victim here? She is the victim of their lust, to be sure; so, too, are they in their self-interest and betrayal of their authority. More importantly, the story undertakes to highlight her virtue and strength. She sees herself as more than simply a victim. She is the symbol of inner strength and virtue who refuses to give in to the forces of circumstances, to injustice and abuse. “I am hemmed in on every side,” she says, “For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands.” But she then says, “I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord.” The story emphasises and upholds this inner strength of character by exposing the hypocrisy and evil of the two judges. Her words already convict them.
Calling attention to hypocrisy is really a way of calling us to account, a way of reminding us of the ultimate power of truth even in the face of human evil. Such stories highlight the forms of self-contradiction that are at the heart of hypocrisy. Far from mere moralism, these stories recall us to the ethical principles of justice and mercy and show us how such principles can live and move in us.
We will see the way in which that comes out in the story of Susanna as we continue to read it in the Senior School Chapels. We are, it seems, more than simply the things that happen to us. By making us aware of hypocrisy we should be moved to healthier forms of self-criticism and away from pointing the fingers of blame at others all the while excusing ourselves.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy