There Are Hypocrites, and Then There Are Hypocrites

I was thinking a while ago about the whole concept of hypocrisy.  One of the most prevalent reasons people give for not being religious is that churches are full of hypocrites.  An article I quickly perused suggested that the term “hypocrite” was not necessarily a bad thing in its early usage, carrying with it the connotation of an actor, or perhaps an understudy to an actor.  The image of acting involves a depiction of scenes and events that are a fiction, whether the play is purely imagined or based on reality.  Accomplished actors will be able to make you believe that the story is true, that they have experienced the emotions, the conflicts, and elations of the characters they are portraying.  As I was once pointedly reminded, “perception becomes reality”: If we perceive the character’s truth, then that truth, although a fiction, becomes true, at least to the audience.

The more current use of the term, “hypocrite”, lacks that classier sort of connotation.  It takes the actor and places him in the real world, where the part he plays is not to entertain or inform, but to mislead and confute.  Here, the hypocrite is not so much an object of respect and admiration as an object of repugnance and disgust.

But what is it that makes the hypocrite hypocritical?  How can you tell a hypocrite when you see one?  Why is hypocrisy so dangerous?  These are all questions that come to mind when thinking about hypocrisy.

To address the first question, it is fairly easy to see what makes for hypocrisy: the attitude of pretense to being better, more righteous than one truly is is a good summary of the hypocritical condition.  The opposite is rarely true, that one would try to make herself look less righteous than she truly may be.  Indeed, the act of deceiving in such way would defeat the purpose, for in perpetrating such a deception, the former righteous state has already been forfeited.  What is interesting to note is that this attitude recognizes a deficiency, yet rather than doing the obvious thing to correct that deficiency—straightening up and flying right—the hypocrite will take measures to avoid that difficult, yet safer path.  Everyone has heard expressions like, “Sam would rather climb a tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth.”  So it is with the hypocrite.

The best field guide to religious hypocrisy is found in Jesus’s pronouncement of the seven woes in Matthew 23.  From the start of this particular teaching, Jesus had the scribes and Pharisees in his sights.  In verse 2, he set the stage by saying they had the authority to interpret the law, but in verse 3, they failed to practice what they preached.  In verse 4, they frequently laid more burdens on the backs of the people, burdens that they themselves refused to lift or carry.  Verses 5-7 reveal a particularly succinct image of the Pharisaical hypocrite, “(5) They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, (6)  and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues (7)  and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”  Everything they do is for show, calling attention to their storefront righteousness.  Verses 8-12 reveal the antithesis of their hypocrisy, which may be summed up in one word: humility.

Beginning in verse 13, he launches into a repetitive denouncement of their hypocritical ways, addressing them each time with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  They were condemned for preventing people from entering the kingdom of heaven, and for failing to summon the humility to enter themselves.  Their proselytes, converts to their twisted, cultic practice of law-keeping, were doubly condemned.  Following a scathing rebuke for inconsistency and splitting hairs with regard to when it was acceptable to break an oath, he rebuked them for failing to observe the weightier matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness–while still meeting the requirements of tithing.  The attention to outward appearances is aptly depicted in verse 27 with the image of whitewashed tombs, so orderly on the outside, but filled with decay and corruption inside.  In verse 30, he quotes their self-righteous pronouncement that they would never have engaged in the heinous acts of murdering the prophets God had sent to call their ancestors to repentance.  Jesus met their challenge in verses 34 and 35, where he says that more prophets and holy men would be sent to teach them, but they would be just like their forebears, murdering the innocent to salve their guilt.

In verse 37, Jesus breaks off his harsh but well deserved attack by offering up a deeply heart-felt lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  He had taught them over and over, revealed to them his identity as the promised Messiah, shown them how he had fulfilled prophecy, and performed miraculous wonders that no natural man would have been able to conjure.  And they rejected him.

Each of these woes was a hallmark of hypocrisy: they professed lip-service to God, but failed to keep the most important commands.  They worried about the minutiae, and failed at the fundamental concepts.  They staked their entire religious experience on appearances of righteousness, and lacked the moral fortitude to support the superficial exercise of their “faith.”

Jesus knew a lot of hypocrites.  Were he to walk among us today right here in the United States, he would notice that people are no different 21 centuries removed from his walk in Galilee and Judaea.  He would instantly be able to size us up and know our hearts.  I wonder if he would have at least as many woes to deliver to us.  It is of no consequence, since he already told us what to look for.  And by knowing those things, we can work to eliminate them in our own lives and help others purge the incipient attitudes before they can lead to eternal loss.

And they can lead to eternal loss.  In Matthew 23:33, he says, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”  That question serves to warn that hypocrisy on the scale of the Pharisees would condemn, but also suggests that there is escape from that potential fate.

Why is hypocrisy so dangerous?  The crux of hypocrisy is reassurance in a false sense and expression of righteousness.  Consider the case of the Apostle Peter.  In Galatians 2, Paul relates his encounter with Peter over the thorny issue of the need for Christians to observe the Law of Moses.  Peter, one of the twelve, part of Jesus’s own inner circle, had felt threatened by the actions of a group of Judaizers, alleged Christians that Paul condemned as leading the people from Jesus’s fresh air of liberty to the stifling chains of legalistic slavery.  In verses 11-13, Paul wrote, “(11) But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  (12) For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  (13) And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”  Peter was led astray by hypocrisy; other converts from the Jewish heritage were led astray by hypocrisy; even Paul’s old traveling companion, Barnabas, was taken in.  If Peter stood condemned for this wavering, surely the others were as well.

Peter apparently learned from the experience of being taken to task by Paul.  In I Peter 2:1-3, he wrote, “(1) So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.  (2) Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— (3) if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Everyone who is truly converted, who is a true disciple has tasted that the Lord is good.  The sweet water of redemption refreshes, the pure spiritual milk builds and strengthens.  Peter knew these things, both from his service at Jesus’s side, and through his career as an Apostle and evangelist after Jesus’s departure.  He was reacquainted with that joy of salvation when he repented of his denial of Jesus, and when he repented of his hypocrisy that kept him from treating all Christians as God saw them: equals.

If the truth were known, we are all potential victims and perpetrators of hypocrisy.  The insidious nature of hypocrisy is such that we may never consciously sit down and plan a campaign in its dubious honor.  It is a creeping sort of malady, a cancer of the soul that gives a false sense of well-being.  But anyone who has witnessed the excruciating last days of a loved one knows that they may rally for a moment before the end.  The height of hypocrisy is that rally, that ultimate false realization that “I am the standard for others to live by, and no other is worthy to be my peer.”

Peter learned the cure for a soul ravaged by self-righteous hypocrisy.  In I Peter 5:5b-7, he said, “(5b) Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  (6) Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, (7) casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  The reward for humility before God is his grace, the intangible treasure of inestimable worth.  That grace will lead to exaltation, but in God’s time, not ours.  In the meantime, we have the assurance that we have a solution for all of our fears, cares, and insecurities:  a caring Father who will never fail in providing what we need.

Are churches full of hypocrites?  I’d be lying if I said there are none.  There will be some in any congregation.  They can change, if they have the will, if they have the encouragement, and if they can see the beauty of a life lived in, of and for truth.  But shunning a church because it is populated by hypocrites is really only a reflection of that same sin.  It says, “I’m at least as righteous if not more so than those church-going hypocrites with their self-serving religion.”  Jesus said it best, when he suggested that it’s hard to see with a plank in your eye.  If we take care of our own issues of self-righteousness, if we acknowledge our failings and humbly seek to do what is right, we will break the enchantment of hypocrisy.  I’d rather have God’s approval and wrap myself in his grace than to keep donning the same old threadbare coat of my own self-righteous making.  After all, God has had more experience dealing with people, whether hypocrite or humble.  He’s better at it, too.


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