On the problem of pretending in the Christian life, and its solution.

One of the Gospels from last week’s daily masses (Luke 12:1–7) opens up some important insights on the “problem of pretending” in the Christian life. One of the problems in getting to this insight of the Lord, is the understanding we have today of the word hypocrisy. To some extent, we have lost the more subtle distinctions and nuances of the word hypocrisy. For most of us today, hypocrisy means, in effect, that our deeds do not match our truest beliefs. There we are inconsistent, that, in effect, we say one thing and do another. While this is part of hypocrisy, is not the whole story.

Let’s look at the passage from Luke 12 and see with the Lord teaches, on the subtleties of hypocrisy.

Here is the full text of that gospel:

At that time:
So many people were crowding together
that they were trampling one another underfoot.
Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples,
“Beware of the leaven–that is, the hypocrisy–of the Pharisees.

“There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.
I tell you, my friends,
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
but after that can do no more.
I shall show you whom to fear.
Be afraid of the one who after killing
has the power to cast into Gehenna;
yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows.”

Note that the passage begins as follows, “Beware of the leaven, that is, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.” (Luke 12:2). Now the Greek word that is translated into English hypocrisy, is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). And its nominative form is  ὑποκριτής (hypocrites) meaning, most literally, “actor.”

Now obviously, an actor, is someone who plays a role. The actor who plays Julius Caesar, is not in fact Julius Caesar. He is, in fact, John Smith, who plays the part of Julius Caesar, but is not Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, they are “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.

Now, everyone accepts this fact, and it is fine for a true actor to “pretend,” for time, to be someone they are not. But it is not good in the spiritual sense to go one “acting” or “pretending.” And when Jesus warns of hypocrisy he is warning that we tend to go on pretending to be someone that we are not, or to be living in a world, or a time, or set of circumstances, which are not, in fact, real.

Pretending is all right on the stage, for a prescribed time. But pretending is not all right in daily life. To pretend, to be an actor in daily life, is to engage in hypocrisy. And the Lord warns against this. We ought not to pretend to be someone we are not, or to be living in an unreal or “pretend” or “make-believe” world.

And so, with all this in mind the Lord warns us not to engage in “hypocrisy.” In effect, he is warning us not to pretend, not to engage in fantasy or live in a make-beleive world. And this line, “Beware of the leaven, that is, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees” serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord lays out the reality, that the pretend world, denies the reality of judgment. This amount to playing “pretend.” He goes on in the text to warn us that there is nothing that is concealed that will not, one day, be revealed; nothing that is secret that will not be made known. He warns that, but we have said in the darkness, is heard in the light and, that everything we say or to is known to him. (Cf. Mk 4:22ff), He then, further warns us not to be obsessed with what other people think of us, not to be concerned with those who only have the capacity to kill the body, or somehow impact our worldly living. Rather, he tells us that we should  have greater fear for the one “who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna”.

So what does all this have to do with hypocrisy? Simply this, we like to go on pretending, that is acting and living in a fantasy world. And the fantasy, the pretend, the “make-believe”  is that what we do, and what we say, will have no consequences. We like to go on pretending that the Lord is some sort of pushover, some sort of “lollipop King”  who just goes on doting over us, and that what we say or do does not ultimately matter.

In effect, the Lord tells us to stop going on pretending, to stop living in fantasy and following the lines of the script that is not the real world, the real God, or the reality that is my own life.

Most people today, living in outright heresy. They simply deny, or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, that there will be a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion, that we will come before the judgment seat of Christ, and that we will render an account, as Scripture says, for every idle word (Mt 12:36), for what we’ve done in secret (Mk 4:22), that we will stand before he him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12) and that nothing will lay hid from Him (Heb 4:13). We make light of this, we discount it. In effect, we pretend. And pretending is acting, pretending is a form of hypocrisy.

When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. In other words, they thought that they had nothing to worry about, for they were “good people,” unlike other less stellar examples of people around them. They had checked off the “God box”, they said their prayers, they fasted on Wednesdays, paid their tithes, and so forth; they were the good people. On the day of judgment they figured they would walk right on into heaven. This is self-righteousness. This is the attitude that, somehow, on my own power, I can attain to eternal life.

Too many people, have this attitude of self righteousness today. They may invoke God’s grace and mercy, but they are not really willing to consider the fact that they may by their own sinfulness disqualify themselves. Perhaps one has been fortunate to avoid the shameful sexual sins of the day, but have they loved the poor, have they been merciful and forgiving, and vice-versa. It is so easy to emphasize certain aspects of holiness and discount others. This is acting, this is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many breeze past any notions that they will have to render an account to the Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love, and everything will be just fine and nobody is really going to Hell.” In other words, the common attitude today is a hell is a remote possibility, that judgment is a mere formality, nothing to be too anxious about. Never mind that this attitude is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture, most today live in outright heresy when it comes to this. (Some, sadly hold the opposite extreme of despair as well).

To all of this the Lord says he careful of hypocrisy be careful that you’re not living in a pretend world. God is very holy. Regarding heaven, none can walk up there but the pure in heart. Do not be so quick to simply presume you or I have the purity of heart to simply walk into heaven. God is very holy, and heaven is a place of the souls of just men made perfect (Heb 12:23). Jesus says, you must be perfect as a heavenly father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality, is not pretend. But hypocrisy likes to “play act.” It thinks of holiness, only as playing a role, or as a light matter, simply the memorizing a few lines, and the playing of a certain part. This is pretend, this is acting, this is hypocrisy. And the Lord warns of it.

The Lord goes on to call another question. He points out that most of us are afraid of those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. He goes on to summon us to a holy reverence. He says, “I shall show you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one, who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna (that is, hell).” He is speaking of himself. Scripture says, for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and render an account for what we’ve done in the body, whether good or ill, that we may receive recompense.” (cf 2 Corinthians 5:10).

Now the Lord is speaking to us here of real life. He is summoning us away from a pretend world where God “does not really care” about good or evil, or care about our holiness. Instead, Jesus is summoning us to the real world where God has a passion for what is right. He has a vigorous love for us, a love that wants for us true perfection, real holiness. God does not want to play or  pretend with us, he seeks real, and true righteousness and holiness for us. He is not going to go on playing games with us. He does not want us to accept that it is enough for us to go on pretending that somehow reciting a few lines and learning a few moves on the stage is enough for us. He seeks for us to be truly, and really holy, righteous, and perfect.

Thus, when the Lord warns against hypocrisy, he is not merely speaking of severe and pretentious religious leaders of the past. He is speaking to you and me. He is telling us to stop pretending, to stop play acting, and to accept that he is about real change in our life. There is a real standard to meet, not just a pretend one. There is a real judgment to get ready for, not just a brief and perfunctory “play” before the throne of God. God is not playing games with us, he is not interested in the game of, “let’s pretend.”

Very little angered Jesus more than hypocrisy. And while we may like to gleefully observe how he excoriates the Pharisees of old we need to understand, and appreciate, that he spoke this warning to his own disciples, that is to us, that we too should beware, that is the wary of, that is “be aware” of the fact that we too can easily again engage in hypocrisy, in acting, in playing “Lets pretend.”

What then, is the solution to this problem of hypocrisy, of playing pretend? In effect, the Lord teaches here that we should ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is, “the Fear of the Lord.”

What does it mean to fear the Lord? To fear the Lord, is not a kind of cringing fear, a fear merely rooted in concern to avoid punishment. Rather, the fear of the Lord is rooted in a deep love for God. It is rooted in a sense of wonder and awe, a deep appreciation of God’s holiness, of his Majesty, of his power, and of his loving providence.

The fear of the Lord is a fear of offending the Lord who has been so good to us, and to whom we owe everything. When we fear the Lord, but we do not trivialize him. We do not pretend that he is some sort of “lollipop King,” some sort of doting Father who does not really care that we run off into self-destructive, and other-destructive behaviors. Rather, when we fear the Lord, we accept that He is holy, and that He is passionate about setting right whatever is wrong within us, or in this world.

The Lord tells us to fear him who has power to cast him to Gehenna. In other words, he couches the fear the Lord in the context of judgment. The Fear the Lord is the gift to be serious and sober about the fact that one day we will answer to the Lord for what we have done, and what we have failed to do. Praise God, we will answer to a God who loves us, but we will answer to him.

In effect the gift of the fear the Lord is meant to instill in us a balance. On the one hand we must be sober and serious about the fact that we will be judged, and that there are, in fact, consequences for the choices we make and the behaviors we exhibit.

But before we merely cringe in fear, the Lord summons us to remember his love for us. He goes on to say “Do not be afraid, you’re worth more than many sparrows.” In other words, our fear of the Lord should not be a servile, a cringing fear. Rather, it should be a fear rooted in love, and the experience of God’s love for us. The fear the Lord is something which balances the reality of judgment with the reality of God’s love. Both are real, both are taught.

As noted, today, most people live in outright heresy (material more than formal), practically, if not totally, denying the reality of judgment, and of Hell. No one loves us more than Jesus Christ, but no one spoke and warned of Hell more than Jesus Christ. No one spoke to us more thoroughly on the reality of judgment, and the need to be ready for it than Jesus Christ.

The gift of the Fear of the Lord balances his love for us, with a sober appreciation that his love is a vigorous love, a love that insists that our justice, our holiness must be real, not pretend. We may wish to go on pretending that judgment is no big deal, but Jesus teaches otherwise, the same Jesus who loves us. Anything else is hypocrisy, is pretending. The gift of the Fear the Lord seeks to hold in balance the love God and the reality of our need to allow God’s love to effect real change in us, not just pretend stuff.

A personal story. The other day I was privileged to preach at a Mass in the great upper church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. As I, with the Bishop from Cameroon and a good number of other priests concelebrants processed up the aisle, I looked up and saw the great mural of Christ, seated in judgment over the nations. As we processed, we were singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and just as I rounded the corner heading up the main aisle, the following lines of the hymn were sung,

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of all, before his judgment seat; Oh be swift my soul to answer my soul to answer, oh be jubilant my feet! His Day is marching on!

I was given the gift of tears, as I looked up and saw Christ seated in Majesty. It is a mural that many do not like, for many reasons. Some see Him as too severe, other reject it for other reasons.But as I looked up, I was moved to weep. Yes, I thought, I will answer to him. But I love Him and know and have experienced that he loves me. Yes, I love Him and  I have respect for Him, but I must answer to Him. I will not trivialize him, but neither do I doubt his love for me or the fact that his love is a healing love, a powerful love that brings eternal healing.

The Fear the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, the gift to reverence God and yet trust his love. If you look carefully at the eyes of Christ seated in Majesty in the mural of the great upper Church in the Basilica, you will notice that the right eye of the Lord shows a kind of severity, for his right eye signifies his righteousness, his justice and his passion for what is right and true. But the left eye is more open more rounded, more serene, and this bespeaks his grace and mercy. On the one face of Christ a feature common in Eastern iconography, is both the justice and mercy of God. For God justice and mercy are alike with him (Sirach 5:7). Some, looking up at that great mural see only the severity. But there is subtlety of the image of His eyes that speak of balance: Justice in the right eye, grace and mercy in the left, One God in whom justice and mercy are alike.

The Fear the Lord respects this balance. The Lord warns of hypocrisy, a kind of heresy that pretends, that play acts that somehow justice and righteousness is simply a matter of reciting a few lines. They are not, they are far deeper. But the Fear the Lord also reverences the fact that only the love of God can utterly transform us into the holiness that is required as we prepare for our appointment before the great judgment seat of Christ.

Avoid hypocrisy, avoid pretending. It is not only the problem of the Pharisees of old, it it, too easily, our very own problem.

10 Replies to “On the problem of pretending in the Christian life, and its solution.”

  1. Msgr.
    in the first paragraph after the bible text, you have: “put greek word here”. Did you mean to go back and type in the greek word?


  2. So, our Lord uses analogy, or metaphor, to illustrate – a thing which He often does. Why leaven? When He chose that it would have been the best choice or, as close to perfect as could be achieved in our human communication.
    When bread is leavened something fluffs it up to be more than it is, without adding something of value. One could use common additions, such as raisins, meat in a sausage roll, etc. Things which increase, not only the size, but also the nutritional content. However, leaven adds nothing of value as it just makes the bread seem like more and, makes it easier to digest. Easier to digest this “more” thing that has no “more” value.
    What is leaven anyway. Well, the two commonest sources are yeast and baking powder (a combiation of an acid and an opposing base) both of which give off a gaseous substance – carbon dioxide – when interacting with water in the dough. I don’t know if the acid/base substance was in use at the time but, its gaseous product is still the same as yeast. Carbon dioxide, which is toxic, not so much in itself but, in the fact that it squeezes out the life giving oxygen. There’s sometimes alcohol as well but, that is discharged in the heat of the cooking.
    So, when we make our food more, do we add spiritual nourishment as the advanced baker adds fruits, meats, or beta caratene pumpkin to the pie or, do we just fluff it up?
    Could this be why the unleavened bread was stressed in holy events in the time of Moses – so that the Children of Israel could, not only hear of the bread being real but, experience it?

  3. The eyes of the Lord in that mural also show One who is on the verge of tears for knowing that He must judge severely those who would not acknowledge, listen and respond. He does not desire it, but He must do it – my impression.

    I would like to thank all of the bishops and priests who go up to the altar nearly everyday and who give homiles or some other service nearly everyday, whether they personally desire to do it or not (one is not always “in the mood” for everything one must do). It is not everyday that you feel what you preach. That’s okay. I’m confident that I and many others understand what that must be like. On some days, one can feel one with God; on other days, one can feel quite alone and “on stage.” There can be great pressure to “perform” and so it might seem that way. It is that “fear of the Lord” which keeps one in check. I think that the litmus test in a case like this is whether one goes “on stage” for personal gain or goes “on stage” out of loyalty and a desire to do service, “in thick and in thin, in good times and in bad, until death do you part.” My point: even spouses struggle with their vocation. So, I would hope that the many good bishops and priests will not overly flog themselves when they at times feel more like they are “on stage” rather than in the Lord. Husbands and wives experience this too – as do the lay faithful sometimes as they attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Ask the saints – I think they will be just as supportive in this regard.

    We are all growing in holiness. I think that as long as we keep moving forward, reflecting inwardly on our condition compared to what the Lord desires and earnestly work to strengthen ourselves like the athelete (according to St. Paul), and calling on the Lord and His many Helps and Helpers to aid us along the way, we are doing well. I suppose that we do well also to accuse ourselves of hypocrisy, just to be safe, so that if and when we uncover it in ourselves, we can show it to the Lord and ask Him for help and healing and the strength to always have truth in our souls, that this truth be love for God and neighbor, to know that truth, and to manifest that truth in all that we do, and to be confident of the Lord’s good pleasure in our actions. We need to reflect on this and ask Him often for His help, especially when we feel weak.

  4. I was a disliker of that mosaic until now. Perhaps I today needed to see that severe face, that face of an Other.

    I remind myself that the sins I’ve whispered to God in confession have been forgotten, as if they never were, andf will not be shouted from the housetops.

    Go to confession.

  5. The real barometer of holiness is self-denial..the greater the self-denial….the greater the holiness

  6. I always read the ‘yeast of the Pharisees’ as outright lying. When He says, “You are worth more than many sparrows,” I tend to think he also making fun of the Apostles, a little bit. Reminds a little bit of the last line of the Book of Jonah. There is one line in the text that I had misunderstood so radically that I am too embarrassed to admit it. Thanks for this excellent post, Monsignor.

  7. There is the pretending that comes from a desire to truly be what one has not yet become. To treat another with forbearance and tolerance in spite of the feeling one may have inside to reach out and strike down. I don’t think that the Lord is condemning this kind of “hypocrisy” but rather the pretending of trying to be something one is not as a show to gain the approval of others. He is condemning the mere acting out of religious rituals without feeling a need for the corresponding interior conversion which is the mark of the Spirit. I think Jesus hates the self-satisfied attitude that says “I’ve made it and everyone else needs conversion because I’m doing all the right things that they are not.”

  8. This Icon of JESUS looks at me surgically opening my inmost being into the supernatural, that I am not made only for this world but to infinitessimal vastness. HE wants me to dwell not in flimsy passing objects of this world but into heights of HIS profundity, meditating, contemplating, searching the true purpose and meaning of this life not for myself alone but with and in HIM and with others whom HE chose to be with me in this pilgrimage. LORD, let me see YOU always in your creation even in my stupor.

    Thanks, Monsignor for your reflections.

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