In the Gospel for Wednesday of the 11th Week of the Year, Jesus gives an extended teaching on hypocrisy (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).
Today we tend reduce the idea of hypocrisy to duplicity. The modern notion is that a hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another, one who is two-faced or phony. While Jesus’ teaching does not exclude this definition, it is far richer.
The biblical word Jesus used to refer to hypocrites is ὑποκριταί (hypokritai), which literally means “stage actors.” On one level it is easy to see how this word has come to mean people who are phony, for they claim to be what they are not; they are just playing a role. When no one is looking (i.e., the audience is gone), the hypocrite reverts to his true self, someone quite different.
In this teaching, Jesus 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, because he does not know God the Father, reduces himself to being an actor on a stage. 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 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 human 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.”
He 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 neglect their appearance so that others may see that they are fasting.
The heart of hypocrisy – The goal of such people is to be noticed. They are “on stage” and seek to ingratiate themselves to the audience and win applause. They engage in particular actions in order that people may see them. This is ultimately sad sight: a lonely actor on a stage, performing whatever role is required in order to win approval from the current audience, his deepest self repressed and replaced by the demands of others. This is the true description of a hypocrite.
Some take this desperate need for approval to self-destructive extremes. Many young people, often due to peer pressure, will engage in dangerous and unhealthy practices in order to gain approval. Some will even drop out of school, join gangs, and/or commit crimes. Others will drink heavily or abuse 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. Like actors on a stage seeking applause, they rush to fill these roles to win the approval they seek.
Adults, too, will often compromise their core principles in order to fit in, be liked, win 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 so as to please their boss; others will gossip or engage in other sinful behaviors to ingratiate themselves to a group.
It is clear that the 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. To one group he will say yes and to another he will say no. Because the goal of the hypocrite (actor) is to be seen and to win approval, his answer must change if the group changes. He will morph, conceal his true thoughts, or outright lie in order to gain approval. The hypocrite no longer has a solid core; his identity is outside of himself, changing to whatever the audience requires in order to grant him approval.
Why does this happen to a person? Here, too, Jesus is rather clear: it happens because the person does not know God the Father. This is the tragedy of many people’s lives. 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.
It is enough that your heavenly Father sees what you do. Now of course as long as God remains a distant and aloof figure, this will not be enough, but to the degree that we experience God’s love for us, His providence, and His good will toward us, we will be less concerned with what others think. We will begin to come down off the stage. We will focus more on, and be more satisfied with, the approval of God.
Notice, too, the intimacy that Jesus sets forth. Jesus refers to God as “your heavenly Father.” He is not merely the deity. He is not merely “God in Heaven.” He is not even just “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 is a real experience for us rather than just words on a page or knowledge based on what others have said, 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: know “your heavenly Father” and experience His love for you. Thank you, Lord Jesus!