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

Tragedy and Comedy Tim Green, Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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 idea 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, inconsistent, or phony. Jesus’ teaching on hypocrisy does not exclude this definition, but it is far richer.

The biblical understanding used 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 someone who is phony. For what hypocrites 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), the hypocrite reverts to his true self, which is someone quite different. Jesus, in his teaching here, develops the understanding far more richly and 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 lives 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, in order to win approval. They are willing to play many roles and wear many masks to please the audience. 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 trumpets so that others will see them giving alms; they pray ostentatiously so that others may see that they are praying; they alter their appearances so that others may see that they are fasting.

The heart of hypocrisy – Thus, the goal of such people 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, his inner core or deepest self repressed and replaced by the demands of others. This is the true heart and description of hypocrisy.

Some take this desperate need for approval to very self-destructive extremes. Many young people, due to peer pressure, will engage in dangerous and unhealthy practices in order 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 or pierce their bodies, engage in sexual activity before marriage, or do other 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 roles 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 the secular modern, in order to win approval. Some will act deceitfully in order 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 entirely wrong. Why does the hypocrite act inconsistently, often in a duplicitous manner? Because the audience changes, and therefore he must change with it. And 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 to win approval, the answer must change if the group changes. Hence he will morph, hide his true thoughts, or outright lie in order to gain the approval. The hypocrite no longer has a core; his identity is outside of himself in whatever 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 because he does not know God the Father. The great tragedy of many people’s lives is that they do not know the Father. They may know ABOUT God, but they do not personally know God nor do they comprehend the depth of His love for them. To them, God is at best a benevolent stranger who runs the universe. He is off in some remote heaven somewhere and the interaction they have with Him is vague and abstract. God exists but He is on the periphery of their lives. In effect, God is a stranger to them.

Notice the remedy that Jesus gives 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 remains a distant and aloof figure, what He sees will NEVER 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; we become less concerned with what others think. We begin to come down off the stage and show less concern about the approval of men, and more focus on and then satisfaction with the approval of God.

Notice, too, the intimacy that Jesus sets forth. Jesus says that God 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 you, and loves you.

Journeying away from Hypocrisy – To the degree that this becomes real for us and is more than just words on the page of a book, or inferential knowledge based 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 that God has created us to be. We begin to lose 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 of 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!

16 Replies to “What Does Jesus Mean by Hypocrisy? It’s More than You Might Think”

  1. Thank you again Rev.Msgr, for being a doctor again, to help daignose and treat the maladies of the soul , with its pervasive effects for the rest of the body !

    One striking incident in this regard , would it not be of the case of Ananias and Sapphira who fall dead at the feet of Peter ..Peter who would have heard what The Lord had said about giving to those who ask ..and seemingly , here they were asking for or already were , in pact with the enemy and wanting to be let go more into same !
    Peter does not hesitate out of fear for human approval, to let what ought to have been ( and may The Lord keep us, all in our lives , in reverential fear and gratitude – away from such attitudes ! )

    Those who want to see the seeming hypocrisy in beleivers who may not give into what might be
    unjust , decietful demands /pressures or the seeming lack of love , for not trying to ‘save ‘ all in one’s paths might use the term hypocrite without much thought !

    This could be to want to keep their distance away from the yoke that is light, because of the sayings that seem to make the demands too far out and the followers too hypocrtical !

    Again , we see The Lord on The Cross ..one word from HIm could have put an end to the sufferings of both the thieves ..and yet , we see He allows things to work out …

    The selfcentered fears and the related need to get human approval at the core of our difficulties , all teh way from The Garden ..

    On this Feast of Corpus Christi, may The Word richly dwell in us , to help us discern more who The Father is ..
    and may The Lord commad off that what keeps any of us from taking in more of that truth , trusting , esp. in moments of trouble , that He esp, is there , to do same for us and others in our lives and pour in His Spirit , with all His blessings of wisdom , truth, love , with its awareness of the nature of responsibilty!

  2. Thank you, Msgr., for this timely and insightful post. Or maybe it is that God knew exactly what I needed to ponder today. And the video is truly uplifting. Blessings!

  3. I might argue the hypocrite’s mask is not so they will be seen, but so they won’t. The mask covers the fear that the hypocrite secretly harbors…that they are inherently wrong. The affected person realizes on a subconscious level that they need “something,” that man alone is lacking, but the devil confuses them so they do not see that they need a deeper relationship with God.

    When we take on that deeper relationship with the Lord, we are filled with Good Things and the emptiness that fed the fear no longer holds us. We are free to remove the mask and be who we were created to be. We no longer need the approval of man as the relationship we have with God is far more satisfying.

      1. David,
        Many people mirror others because they do not know their own core…. they do not know their “true self.” You may not see you, but the Father does. Find yourself on your knees. Let Christ show you who you are and you will then love yourself as you love others. What you will see through His eyes will astound you. You are loved and worth the universe.

    1. Jesus is always there, of course. I do not have what is considered normative thinking and did not know how to process your post until I saw Mary’s reply. I only mention this to show sometimes what we keep slightly veiled is the Cross, in my case, because I know it makes others uncomfortable. As for hypocrisy I can gague no one but myself, looking daily for splinters, old and new, and then remembering what I look like, confessing no sin but my own. This is how I know myself. God grant you Grace and His Peace.

  4. I once not too long ago heard a different take on hypocrisy.

    Contrary to common usage..where being a hypocrite is taken as one who says one thing and does another.

    the more stretchier understanding is that a hypocrite is one who says one thing and BELIEVES another.

    Saying one thing..and doing another is just being a fallen human. I say that I am going to be more patient, but I fail. I say I am going to get in shape..and act in another way. etc.

  5. Thank you Msgr. Pope. Lovely article and very helpful. I still struggle with this. Off to confession with me. God bless you.

  6. Jesus also gave us a parable which the apostle Paul apparently interprets. Jesus, said that
    the kingdom of heaven is like “a woman who hid some yeast into three measures of flour until
    the whole lump was leavened.”

    Jesus said, that ‘the leaven of the Pharisees was hypocrisy’.

    The apostle Paul said that in the last days, ‘people would have
    the form of godliness, but deny the power thereof, avoid such people”.

    Avoiding such people, is the same warning that Jesus gave to his
    disciples, ‘beware of the leaven of the Pharisees”.

    The sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit is not something that I was
    taught in religion class.

  7. Our culture is a big stage. So many people have adopted false fronts that have come from upbringing, social engineering though media and entertainment, false formation in education etc. The road to authentic self-discovery is a journey of faith. God made us who we are, and we have to strive to be exactly who we are in His eyes. Being so blind, we need enlightenment to discover our authentic selves. Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Lately, I have been asking the Lord the same simple question, “Lord, who do you say that I am?” Unmasking is a process and we are so fearful of it, yet I think it is the antidote to fear and gateway to freedom and peace. Thanks for this wonderful article Monsignor.

  8. Thanks very much rev msg for dissecting this topic.you have given me another chance to ponder on my Christian life

  9. In passing, there’s a reminder of Shakespeare’s comment about the world being a stage and everyone being actors. He didn’t seem to consider an opportunity to rise above it but, can we accept a previous offer to do so?
    To go deepre, than the diluted (and thereby possibly dis-effectualizing) current view of hypocrisy as merely doing one thing and saying another (or Bill’s impressive stretchier comment about saying one thing and believing another) there’s mention of hypocrisy defined as actors on a stage is certainly a fine step.
    Feeling, also, a deeper etymological root I looked it up. Having been aware of “hypo” meaning under (used it so sometimes previously on this blog) also sensed that “critical” may be involved in the third and fourth syllables.
    Online etymology information states that the word indeed is used as about actors but, a more core, derivative, meaning involves “under” and “to sift, decide”
    Critical thinking has been portrayed to me, in school science lessons and elsewhere, as a scrutiny in search of truth. This scrutiny could very well be a sort of sifting/deciding. In Luke 22:31 it would appear that The Teacher Of Truth gave in to the deceiver who asked that the disciples be sifted – such seems to be the importance of truth.
    Some years ago I began to read the Holy Bible (said this way because “bible” can refer to any book in several languages, including French and Ukrainian) through – and in sequence – with only one pre-conceived notion; that properly written scripture is perfect. A lot of what had been taught about my belief about the content was very much upset and caused me both discomfort and joy.
    Applying critical thinking, within the context of that one pre-conceived notion, has brought about a change in my perception and; has allowed me to set aside the pre-conceived notion due to see-ing the light shine through imposed societal mis-conception.
    My critical thinking has gradually changed from a range between hypo, and hyper, critical to a higher awareness. The last stumbling block to overcome was in the letters of Saint Paul. Then; recalling the effort to divert with the comment in Acts 26:24 (reminiscent to me of Acts 2:13 and 2 Peter 2:12) about Paul’s great learning; there came realization of a need to look from a broader, more scholarly, viewpoint – as Paul likely would have done. Then these things started to make a lot more sense.
    Then, there was a desire to suggest dispute, or maybe expand upon, one of the main points in the article.
    “The hypocrite no longer has a core; his identity is outside of himself in whatever the audience requires in order to grant him approval”
    I see this as a worthy and bold statement but, in an attempt for clarity (rather to impress with many words through verbosity) I see the inner core as being more like Lazurus. Dead but still existing as it waits in potential of the healing of the Lamb of God. Having seen miraculous transformation within myself and others by summoning the emotional courage to follow His path to Recovery and that inner peace called “serenity”. Please note the word “attempt” for I acknowledge not being an adequate judge in my own case.
    On an overall perspective motive could be important in one of the statements here.
    When doing deeds within Christian duty; to benefit the needy or to manifest peity or some other worthy service; are we trying to impress or are we trying to inspire others by “practicing what we preach”?
    Could this critical search within ourselves help to determine whether the deeds are seen by the world or not? Here remains a mystery to me.
    Perhaps we could ask ourselves whether we are Christians within and without by inwardly being, as well as outwardly living, truly loving of all of God’s creation. Quite a challenge of so accepting of truth.
    A performace on a stage has an authourity, usually called a director, who sets the standards for that particular “world”. The actor balances both impressing that authourity and impressing the the audience.
    In summation, it would seem that, when we accept our Heavenly Father as the Authourity then; we can stop impressing the worldly audience as well as the metaphorical director (or prince?) of this world.

    1. The critical thinking and second guessing of the reasons behind ones actions, brought to mind how we tell our children, to just say sorry whether they mean it or not . It is in the action that the sentiment often follows. Say I love you, when you dont feel particularly loving, say nothing instead of the clever but mean wisecrack, a deliberate conscious will to either do something good or not do something cruel. Do whats right, just, loving, because it is right, and leave all self consciousness behind. First we do it to obey God, eventually he changers our heart, and we do it for love of God, and then we see him in all his creatures. We lose the hyper self awareness, self image,self consciousness, and selfishness. I think its what makes great actors,when they lose their self, we believe they are that character.

      1. Very interesting and has, at the very least, potential to alter & expand my viewpoint for the better.
        Bringing up the point of being obedient to God; it’s always led to the best results when I ask for (and accept) God’s guidance in my searches. With this approach it feels like He is gently guiding me in the way that a quality teacher leads the students to find, and put in, as much input as they are able so that they might grow in learning how to think. Perhaps I should have included this so, I take the opportunity to thank you.
        The main point about doing the right thing (if my understanding of your intent isn’t too imperfect) whether one wants to, or not, until it seems appropriate reminds me of something which developed in a support group.
        The term “fake it till you make it” was often recommended – especially in following the lead of the better role models. This seemed, to me, to be lacking in enough honesty until recalling – and relating – an experience of mine.
        Most of my athletic skills had been learned in my childhood years but, it wasn’t until reaching middle age that I took up fencing with the epeé and found the stance involved to be very awkward and hard to maintain. For a time my balance was poor and the fencing moves were ponderous.
        Knowing that this stance worked well for the highly accomplished fencers I kept practicing until it became more natural and balanced. Once I had this in place I was able to advance my efforts much quicker and to a superior quality.
        Thank you also for this reminder as I haven’t thought of it in years.

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