What Does Jesus Mean by Hypocrisy? It’s Deeper than You Think

In the Gospel from Ash Wednesday’s  Mass, Jesus gives an extended teaching on the problem of hypocrisy. You can read it here: Matthew 6 – On Hypocrisy. In the modern age we have tended to reduce the notion of hypocrisy to duplicity. The modern notion is that a hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another, a person who is two-faced, who is inconsistent or phony. Jesus’ teaching on Hypocrisy does not exclude this notion but is far richer.

The Biblical understanding enunciated by Jesus is rooted in the original meaning of the Greek word ὑποκριταί (hypokritai) which means “stage actors.” At one level it is easy to see how this word has come to mean some one who is phony. For what they claim to be, they really are not, they are just acting a role. But when no one is looking (i.e. the audience is gone) they revert to their true self, which is some one quite different. But Jesus in his teaching here develops the understanding far more richly that shows how sad and poignant hypocrisy is, what its origin is and how it can be overcome.

Hypocrisy defined – In effect Jesus describes hypocrisy as the sad state of a person who reduces himself to being an actor on a stage, because he does not know God the Father. There are many people who live their life in a desperate search for human approval and applause. They discern their dignity and worth, not from God, (who is in effect a stranger to them), but from what other human beings think of them. They are willing to adapt themselves often in dramatic ways to win approval. They are willing to play many roles and wear many masks to give the audience what they want. They are like actors on a stage, who seek applause or perhaps laughter and approval. Notice the way Jesus describes the heart of hypocrisy:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them;….The Lord goes on to say that they blow a trumpet so that others will see them giving alms, they pray ostentatiously so that others may see they are praying, and they alter their appearance so that others may see they are fasting.

The heart of hypocrisy – Thus, the goal of such a person is to be seen. They are on stage and seek to ingratiate themselves to the audience and win applause. Hence they engage in some action “in order that people may see them.” It is clear that this is ultimately very sad. A lonely actor on a stage performing whatever role is required in order to win approval from the current audience. Their inner core or deepest self is repressed and replaced by the demands of others. This is the true heart of and description of hypocrisy.

Many take this desperate need for approval from others to very self destructive extremes. Many young people, due to peer pressure, will engage in dangerous and unhealthy practices to win approval. Some will drop out of school, join gangs and commit crimes. Others will drink heavily or use drugs. Still others will tattoo and pierce their bodies, engage in sexual activity before marriage, and do many risky things. The need for approval is often the deep drive that underlies this desperate behavior. But like actors on a stage seeking applause they rush to fill these rolls and wait for the applause and acceptance.

Adults too will often compromise core principles in order to fit in and be liked, gain promotions or earn access. Christians will hide their faith, playing the role of a secular modern in order to win approval. Some will act deceitfully to please a boss, others will gossip or engage in any number of sinful behaviors to ingratiate themselves to a group.

It is also clear that our modern notion of hypocrisy as duplicity, while incomplete, is not wrong either. Why does the hypocrite act inconsistently, often in a duplicitous manner? Because the audience changes, and he must change with it. So to one group he will say “yes” and to another group he will say “no.” Since the goal of the hypocrite (actor) is to be seen and win approval, the answer must change if the group does. Hence he will morph, hide his true thoughts or outright lie to gain the approval. He no longer has a core, his identity is outside of himself in what ever the audience requires in order to grant him approval.

Why does this happen to a person? Here too Jesus is rather clear. This happens to a person who does not know God the Father. The great tragedy of many lives is that they do not know the Father. They may know ABOUT God, but they do not personally know God or his love for them. God is at best a benevolent stranger who runs the universe but he is in some remote heaven and the interaction that many have with him is vague and abstract. God exists but he is on the periphery of life. In effect he is a stranger.

Notice the remedy that Jesus assigns for each example of hypocrisy he cites:

Your heavenly Father, who sees in secret will repay you for giving alms….Your heavenly Father who sees in secret will repay you for praying…..Your heavenly Father who sees what is hidden will repay you for your fasting.

In other words the goal in life and the remedy for hypocrisy is that it is enough that Your heavenly Father sees what you do. Now of course, as long as God the Father remains a distant and aloof figure what he sees never WILL be enough for us. But to the degree that we begin to experience God the Father’s love for us, his providence and his good will toward us, then we become less concerned with what others think. We begin to come down off the stage and be less concerned for the approval of men and more focused on and then satisfied with the approval of God.

Notice too the intimacy that Jesus sets forth. He says of God, He is “Your heavenly Father.” He is not merely the “Deity.” He is not merely God in heaven. He is not even merely the Father. He is “YOUR heavenly Father.” He is the one who created you, sustains you, provides for and loves you.

Journeying away from Hypocrisy – To the degree that this becomes real for us, and is more than words on the page of a book, or inferential knowledge base only on what others have said, to the degree that this is a real experience for us, we start to climb off the stage. We are less the actor (the hypocrite) and more the authentic self God has created us to be. We begin to loose our obsession with what others think of us. We are less desperate for their approval. It is not that we become sociopaths caring not one whit what others think. We still groom ourselves etc., but we are not obsessed with the good opinion of others. It is enough that we know our heavenly Father and his love for us.

Hence, hypocrisy, at least as Jesus teaches it here. is a richer concept than we often think of today. To this sad and poignant problem, Jesus addresses a very powerful and personal solution of knowing “your heavenly Father” and experiencing his love for you. Thank you Lord Jesus!

18 Replies to “What Does Jesus Mean by Hypocrisy? It’s Deeper than You Think”

  1. It seems to me that according to the common definition of hypocrisy, that someone is not practicing what he preaches, or fails to live up to the Christian ideal that he subscribes to, it is inevitable that life will inevitably make hypocrites of us all, because we are fallen, imperfect sinners and we will always fall short of the target.

    But I think the common understanding of hypocrisy, which is used frequently to beat Christians over the head when they succumb to temptation and fall into sin, is not really what Jesus meant.

    Peter Kreeft provides some interesting insight on hypocrisy in an essay which is part of a series he wrote called “The Pillars of Unbelief” in which he discusses six major philosophical thinkers who provide the framework for modernist unbelief and lack of faith. The particular article is on Machiavelli, and he writes the following:

    This is the common, modern misunderstanding of hypocrisy as not practicing what you preach. In that sense all men are hypocrites unless they stop preaching. Matthew Arnold defined hypocrisy as “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Machiavelli was the first to refuse to pay even that tribute. He overcame hypocrisy not by raising practice to the level of preaching but of lowering preaching to the level of practice, by conforming the ideal to the real rather than the real to the ideal.

    Actually, we have misdefined “hypocrisy.” Hypocrisy is not the failure to practice what you preach but the failure to believe it. Hypocrisy is propaganda.

    I think he’s right – and it fits in with what Msgr. Pope writes above about the remedy being the cultivation of a true, sincere relationship with Jesus. That means heeding what Jesus said when he was baptized by John the Baptist, and, in the gospel reading from next Sunday, proclaimed the gospel saying “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

    There it is from the Lord’s own Word – the antidote to hypocrisy is to believe what you preach – believe the gospel message, and repent of your failure to live up to it.

  2. wonderful incite – ‘ pretenders’ if i may [ loosely] we have so many who try to behave as they think people near/ dear to them want them to be…. especially among our young ladies… your comments brought new dimensions to the whole idea- thank you! look forward to more from you….

    1. That’s an excellent point.I also think that God humbeld Naaman by giving this successful warrior a disease that he couldn’t fight in his own power. He made Naaman vulnerable and open to listening to the servant girl. It’s amazing how he works on us.

  3. What a beautiful explanation. I believe that as one grows closer to God, they naturally gravitate to the things of God and have less time to spend worrying about the pleasing of others. Knowing that one is loved unconditionally by God our Father, we do not have to seek the love and approval of others. We can slip from first place to last and be happy.

  4. I “suspect” that for a multitude of reasons, the elderly are far less hypocritical. Sadly our society, for the most part, has distanced itself from their fellowship, wisdom and humility via nursing homes, retirement centers or other forms of isolation.

  5. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a beautiful hymn. I can’t recall what it is called. Part of it expresses the sentiment, “Oh Lord, I am not like Thomas. I can’t not put my hand in your wounds.”

    St. Louis de Sales says in Introduction to the Devout Life that if there is a room filled with people and one of them is blind, and then a prince walked into the room, the blind man would have to be told that a prince had walked into the room, and furthermore, the blind man would easily forget that a prince is in the room.

    St. Louis de Sales says that we are, including himself, that blind man.

  6. @RichardC: You may have misattributed the writing of St. Francis de Sales to St. Louis de Montfort.

    Introduction to the Devout Life is by St. Francis de Sales.

  7. According to Aristoteles in his work “Poetica” the primary mover for the actions of mankind is “recognition of self and recognition from others”.

    It is uncertain wether or not Aristoteles thought it possible to get recognition from God.

    His views upon “the gods”, as he mistakenly thought Him to be, was that “perhaps they are as crazy and deranged as the tragedies paint them out to be.”

    Most liklely Aristoteles thought it impossible to get recognition from God, and thus described the 1.st principle of human action to gain recognition from selv and other humans.

    If Aristoteles was right, it is understandable that people sometimes act phony.
    Phonyness then seems a response to a deep need for love, respect and recognition from your fellow man.

    When the need for love and recognition from your fellow man takes over the neccecity of standing firm on The Word of God, you get phonyness.

    I, however, speak my mind.

    And the result is almost always very unpoplular and almost always confrontational.’
    For instance:

    I confirm that women belong in the kitchens and that they should remain silent in public.

    I confirm that it is the duty of a woman to be submissive to her husband.
    She should fear him as much as she should love him.

    She should wash his feat, keep his house clean and raise his children.
    He should protect her and love her in return.

    And furthermore, I confirm that all who disagrees should refrain from calling themselves “Christian”.
    Usually, messages such as these will get my posts deleted.

    But not here, because Monsignore Pope is a man of God who cares what God thinks more than he cares what humans think.

    Allthough he has a deep love for humans, his love for truth runs deeper.
    And he does not wish to hurt them.

    Monsignore Pope is a kind and good man. And he keeps it real.

  8. Thanks for this great message, Monsignor!! The love of God the Father, Our Father, is far more love than we’ll ever need in this life!! How blessed are we with this great gift but yet often turn away from it due to our selfishness and pride. I have often found myself on the “stage” and quickly “fall” only to fully realize the awesome power of God’s love for me from those who love me.

    With your permission, I would like to use your article on a talk I’m presenting on Piety for an upcoming men’s weekend. I’ve re-read your article at least three times now and it is really speaking very loudly to me in every way and in the talk I’ve been asked to give.

    Thanks so much for sharing the love of Our Father through you!!

  9. I could not help but think how much of this applies to mere “celebrants”, mere “presiders”, priest-performers on stage facing us in Church and how, if they were one with their flock, facing almighty God together with us, instead of actors seeking applause while serving a good meal at a dinner theatre, Turn them around, and they would re-present in persona Christi as Head of the Mystical Body the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to the Father. Actors speak lines for adulation; true shepherds speak the Truth. guy mcclung, rockport, texas

  10. My heart has been shaken once again. Being Catholic I was brought up saying to my protestant bretheren (classmates etc.) that would say mean things about my faith. That my sins were greater than theirs due to my complete knowledge of my faults before actually acting them out. “Hipocrisy”. Then as I got older my response changed to. “You Know What the Catholic Church says right?? .” “Well there is always room for another hypocrite” Well here I am > 50 yrs old with the knowledge that my hipocrisy has had no bounds for years, I really need and want a better relationship with My father in Heaven. Pray for me.. Thank you Monsignor Pope I almost felt Christ was giving me an avenue for healing.

  11. If people could understand the true meaning of the lords love, the meaning of love everything else would fall into place!

  12. Thank you for this very clear explanation of Jesus word “hypocrite.” Simple, but very thought provoking. It has helped me to more fully understand the sermon on the mount, in 2014 in Torrance CA.

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