The following sermon was written by Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)
Christian preachers rarely allow themselves to preach from Matthew 23, where Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of religious lawmakers of his era with unquestionable contempt. We prefer preaching the soothing sayings of Jesus. Unlike John the Baptist, who did not hesitate to denounce religious and political tyranny, even so-called “evangelical conservative” preachers who profess to be “pro-life” somehow avoid applying what Jesus said in Matthew 23 to the political officials responsible for deciding what governmental priorities deserve top attention and funding.
However, Jesus, like prophets of justice in every age, refused to tiptoe around the issue of hypocrisy by people in power. He was unflinchingly blunt when he denounced religious lawmakers for being “strict constructionists” about tithing to the point that they tithed spices while being derelict about justice, mercy and faith. Calling them “blind guides,” Jesus described their lawmaking using graphic digestive terms. Straining refers to defecation; swallowing refers to ingestion. By using the “gnats” and “camel” analogy, Jesus described the moral quality of religious lawmaking in his time as being like someone who eats much but produces little—and characterized the quality of what was produced as worthless.
The latest political debate surrounding health care in the United States is contaminated by similar hypocrisy. Business leaders and lobbyists with ties to the insurance and medical industries appear to have influenced the thinking of some self-described “fiscal conservatives” in Congress who call themselves “Blue Dogs.” The Blue Dogs claim that fixing the much maligned healthcare system in the United States is too expensive and will increase federal budget deficits. In taking that stance, Blue Dog politicians present a blatant hypocrisy that people who believe in social justice and mercy should denounce in obedience to the example of Jesus Christ.
To a person, almost every Blue Dog member of Congress supported financing Operation Iraqi Freedom, the multi-trillion dollar exercise in military adventurism that President George W. Bush launched based on mis-informed or distorted intelligence. In their book titled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, Joseph Stiglitz (who received the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics) and co-author Linda Bilmes assert that the Iraq war will cost at least $3,000,000,000,000, even using “conservative estimates,” and will likely cost as much as $5,000,000,000,000. I use the long form of those figures rather than “three trillion” and “five trillion” to show what kind of money is involved.
What justice and mercy results might the Blue Dogs have supported instead of a war that should not have been started and for which they seem to lack the moral and political will to end? According to writer Daniel Davies, “the cost of the Iraq War could have underwritten Social Security for fifty years.” Aida Edemariam, writing for The Guardian, declares that the cost of the Iraq war would have paid for “8 million housing units, or 15 million public school teachers, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year, or scholarships to university for 43 million students.” (Emphasis added)
True fiscal conservatism would have supported investing in education, healthcare, and similar social justice and mercy measures, not military adventurism. True conservatism would act as if the health of people in the United States is worth the necessary investment. True conservatism would ask whether we are making healthcare more available, and improving it in the meantime. True conservatism would not criticize efforts to provide healthcare while supporting endless spending on a war that should have never begun.
The Blue Dogs swallowed the Iraq war camel. Now they are determined to strain out a healthcare gnat, for whatever reasons. Like Jesus said of the religious lawmakers of his day, that is hypocrisy.
The issue for people who follow Jesus is whether we will be enablers of that hypocrisy. Will you and I, whether by our deliberate positions concerning the healthcare debate or by our silence and apathy, permit the hypocrisy to shape public policy regarding healthcare for our neighbors? Will the followers of Jesus, who healed the influential and the impoverished for the same fee—nothing—allow ourselves to be fooled by such “fiscal conservatism?” If so, we will not only enable the hypocrites, but will become agents of hypocrisy ourselves.
On April 4, 1967, in a sermon delivered at Riverside Church in New York City that was titled, “A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. solemnly warned when he publicly declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Followers of Jesus Christ should take the lead in denouncing the notion that there is something conservative about a nickel and dime approach to healing and healthcare while engaging in mindless military spending for war-making. As followers of Jesus, let us become prophets of healing, not blind followers of power-blinded guides in war-making. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.