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!