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!