Out of the shadow came sweet little Matilda, an elderly woman who was very sociable and liked to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone knew Matilda in the town, she was there from day dot – she was always there. No one could imagine the town without her she was so well known and so kind and helpful.
Matilda would always arrive unannounced she was quite a character, almost like a silent assassin, you just turned around and she was behind you. Immediately she would join in your conversation whether you wanted her to or not, whether you invited her to or not. Matilda would be there, her eyes wide open, revealing the deepest sky blue twinkling eyes you have ever seen. Her smile would reveal porcelain white teeth and the crevices on her face were those of laughter lines, dear sweet Matilda – the whole town loved her. She was first in the queue of volunteers; she was the last out of the kitchen of the church whenever there was a function. Sold, reliable and well loved that was our Matilda and she would receive many invitations from all the townsfolk to attend their weddings, baptisms and birthday parties. Many local churches would invite her along to their fates or coffee mornings, because she was the oldest resident with the cheeriest disposition.
Dear sweet Matilda harboured a secret, a sinister secret that no one knew about but her family knew, her sons and daughters who no longer resided in the town knew. Indeed they had moved to the four corners of the globe, it turns out to escape from her wickedness and cruelty. Matilda was sweet to the townsfolk on the outside, but on the inside she really was a nasty piece of work.
Matilda regularly beat her children, to the point that some required medical attention. She never took them to see the town Doctor, such an act of compassion would betray her. No Matilda preferred to present a happy front, be involved in the lives of all the others but kept her life secret from the townsfolk.
It wasn’t until her death that the town realised she was not who she appeared to be. Her family had washed their hands of her; some didn’t even know that she had children. She never spoke of them, never mentioned them in conversation. Unlike most parents who speak either with great pride in their children, Matilda had nothing to say.
As the executor of her estate poured over the contents of her home, he stumbled across a journal. Matilda had kept a journal all her life, it was a diary of all the baptisms, weddings, funerals and birthdays she had attended. It contained details of all the townsfolk. The journal was laced with poison, not the kind that you digest and kills you stone dead but the venomous kind that only those who are troubled would write.
One entry she wrote ‘Went to fat Sam’s 50th birthday party. Huh, I remember when Sam was born, an ugly looking baby then and still ugly now. Takes after his parents, Ellie thinks she is pretty but I outrank her and as for that low life man of hers, he’ll never beat my Frank, in selling cars. My Frank sold a car to his sister, it was a mouldy old thing but with a bit of elbow grease and polish, looked the part, after all we’re not a charity, and we need the money.’
A later entry she wrote, ‘Fat Sam’s ugly little sister died today in her car. Seems there was something wrong with it, but I know, I know what she was like, probably flirting at every passing man in a car and not looking where she was going, no way is Frank paying out that money to those low lives.’
Matilda was the personification of wholesome and goodness to the townsfolk, but her journal betrayed her. As the executor read on, it was quite clear that Matilda was a nasty piece of work. She had an opinion on everything and everyone and every opinion she harboured was nasty, to the point of being evil. Her journals revealed not so much as a troubled mind, for it was quite clear that Matilda knew fine well what she was doing but she was manipulative in doing it.
One of the other entries in her journal went like this, ‘Went to Thelma’s for lunch, miserable lunch as usual in that run down, porch that she thinks is her grand palace. Cold coffee and stale bread, her pumpkin pie is a feeble attempt too.’ The final entry was the hardest for the executor to read, “Went to church today, church cold, people common, pastor’s wife boorish and that silly man doesn’t know his Bible, not like me, I know every book from the beginning to the end – just have to ask me and I can recite them in any order. Call that a picnic, that’s no picnic these people are insane, I would eradicate the lot of them.”
The day of the funeral arrived and the townsfolk all gathered, but none of her children were there. They were all quick to comment on the fact that they were missing. The Pastor delivered the eulogy to the ‘dear, sweet lady who had befriended him and his wife all those years ago’. Fat Sam spoke too, of how she always complimented him on his looks, ‘what a fine boy and what a fine looking man’ she told him. Her friend Thelma spoke of the joys of sitting on the porch, drinking coffee and sharing in pumpkin pie and many from the church remember her joy and happy smile, whilst sitting at the Sunday school picnic.
The executor sat there in silence, his face not betraying a single comment but he knew, her family knew and God knew too! Matilda was a hypocrite, an evil lady who knew how to charm people from the outset. She knew how to work her way into company to hear about your business but never her own. She knew how to weave into conversations and find out about your family life, your income, your thoughts and feelings. She was the master at receiving invites but never sending any out. Her home had never received a visitor in over 30 years; it was only when her executor arrived after her death had someone crossed that threshold of that soulless, unhappy place.
The townsfolk mourned for the loss of their eldest, sweetest resident, the church prayed for her and wanted to erect some memorial and they contacted her family for permission but whilst they were at it, provided Matilda’s family with their thoughts on leaving such an old, vulnerable sweet old lady on her own and not attending their own mother’s funeral. The townsfolk were getting to be quite good at expressing their views to others, defending their late lamented sweet old lady.
Some years passed and the truth finally began to emerge, some of her journals had made their way into public life. Soon the whole town found out that this ‘dear sweet old lady’ was neither dear nor sweet. She was in fact, the very opposite of everything they thought she stood for. Some of her children came back to close the door on the life behind them. They didn’t sell her house – they had it demolished, with all the contents still inside. Then they handed the plot of land over to the townsfolk – as in their view nothing good had ever come of that place.
They made no profit, they never spoke about her, they kept their silence – it was their friends who shared their heartaches, their stories of near torture and torment by a ‘sweet dear old lady.’
Matilda’s is a sad story, a story of bitterness, pain and of evil wrapped up and presented in such a way that Max Clifford looks like an amateur. Matilda was the ultimate PR spin doctor, she had the ability to con people into thinking that she was this lovely old lady – but in death she was exposed for who she really was.
We see and hear stories like Matilda all the time. A celebrity dies and before you know the stories come out from an estranged family member that the public persona of the person was sooo different from the private individual. Bing Crosby was slated by some of his own family when he died, as was Michael Landon (little Joe or Pa Ingles from Little House on the Prairie).
We have a perception about some people; we have images about how people in certain professions or public offices should behave. We don’t think about how we should be – we are not in public office, we’re not in a mainstream profession, we can behave how we like, because no one will notice, no one will know. Trouble with that is we always get exposed as the truth eventually comes out.
That’s what Jesus is trying to tell the people in this mornings reading. The Pharisees and Scribes are once again being challenged by Jesus, he knows them – he respects them and whilst the text may not highlight this, he fully understands that they are knowledgeable and a righteous people but he challenges them because of their ‘self righteousness’. He challenges them because they are hypocrites.
The fifth verse sums this up very well, as he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, “The people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I suspect that this is where we get the term paying lip service. Folks who promise you the earth or who say the things that you want to hear but actually don’t intend to fulfil their promises or speak the truth.
Mark’s Gospel confirms that Jesus is challenging those with two faces – those who practice one thing but dictate something to others. Jesus is challenging those who put on the act, the word hypocrite comes from the ancient Greek, the word originally meant to ‘act in the theatre’, and I wonder how many of us in this world are on that stage, playing a full part in the act?
Jesus is challenging the Pharisees and Scribes, he has gone against tradition (someone else who doesn’t follow the way things should be or used to be, he must have been a real thorn in the flesh) but there he is challenging them on their rituals because he knows that behind doors they are very don’t practice what they preach. In many ways, they are like Matilda full of piety and virtue to the public but behind closed doors they are the opposite.
The rabbinic food laws are complicated for some of us to understand in the modern day world. We all have different things we would eat and not eat. America – home of the hotdog, Scotland – haggis and in Thailand it is dog. Most of us here would not eat dog, we wouldn’t put in our mouths but we would all expect to have the same ritual in maintaining our cleanliness before eating. It’s not something that Jesus is objecting too, he just knows that the Pharisees and Scribes are not as ‘spiritually clean’ as they would like you to believe. They abandon God and ‘hold on to human tradition’ and it is that tradition that Jesus is rebelling against – the tradition of deceit, wickedness and many others.
Our story about the dear sweet old woman is just that – a story, a figment of my imagination but the reality is we all know a ‘dear sweet Matilda’. We all know someone who has walked away from a meeting, walked away from a family meal and said rather unkind things about the meal, the host or the setting. We all know people who have many faces but the most worrying aspect of all, is do you know yourself?
God does! God knows what you are really like. God knows what you think before you do and he knows what you are going to say before you do. If anyone here this morning is trying to hide their true selves from God – don’t bother, he knows you only too well and through time you will be caught out but you have a chance this morning, you have a chance to change, a chance to become something new, someone new – don’t be a Matilda and waltz into town, sweeping people along with you – be yourself, be honest and be – before God, be!