The Gospel for today’s Mass (Friday of the 28th Week) opens up some important insights on the problem of “pretending” in the Christian life. One of the difficulties in arriving at these insights is the understanding we have today of the word hypocrisy. To some extent, it seems to have lost its subtler distinctions and nuances. To most of us, hypocrisy refers to our deeds not matching our truest beliefs, to saying one thing and doing another. While this is part of hypocrisy, it is not the whole story. I have written more on that here: Hypocrisy is more than we think.
Today’s Gospel speaks to the subtleties of hypocrisy. Here is the full text:
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” (Luke 12:1-7).
The Greek word that is translated as “hypocrisy” is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). Its nominative form is ὑποκριτής (hypocrites), which most literally means “actor.”
Obviously, an actor is someone who plays a role. An actor who portrays Julius Caesar is not in fact Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, he is “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.
It is certainly fine for an actor to “pretend,” for a time, to be someone he is not. But in the spiritual sense, it is not good to act or pretend. When Jesus warns of hypocrisy, He is warning against pretending to be someone that we are not; or pretending to live in a world, in a time, or under a set of circumstances that is not in fact real.
With all this in mind, consider that the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy. In effect, He is warning us not to pretend, to engage in fantasy, or to live in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow in this Gospel.
And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on 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 what we have said in the darkness is heard in the light and that everything we say or do is known to him (cf. Mk 4:22ff).
He then further warns us not to be worried by those who only have the ability to kill the body. Rather, He tells us that we should have greater fear of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.
Most people today live in outright fantasy. They deny or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion that they will have to render an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36), for what they’ve done in secret (Mk 4:22); that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12) and that nothing will lay hid from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.
When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. They thought that they had nothing to worry about because they were “good people,” unlike others around them. They had “checked off the God box.” They said their prayers, fasted on Wednesdays, and paid their tithes. On the day of judgment, they figured that they would just walk right on into Heaven.
Too many people today have this attitude of self-righteousness. 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 they have been fortunate enough to avoid the shameful sexual sins of our day but have loved the poor and been merciful and forgiving. It is so easy to emphasize certain aspects of holiness while discounting others. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
Too many brush aside the notion that they will one day have to render an account to the Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. Nobody is really going to Hell.” The common attitude today is that Hell is but a remote possibility and only for the worst of the worst; judgment is a mere formality and 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 on this topic. (Sadly, some hold the opposite, extreme attitude: one of despair.)
The Lord says that we should beware of hypocrisy, careful that we’re not living in a pretend world. Regarding Heaven, none but the pure in heart can just walk up there. We should not be so quick to presume that we 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 just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality; it is not “pretend.” But hypocrisy likes to “play act.” It thinks of holiness as a role to be played, a light matter in which a few lines are memorized. And the Lord warns against it.
When the Lord warns against hypocrisy, He is not merely speaking to the 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 what He really wants is for us to change our lives. There is a real standard to meet, not just a pretend one. There is a real judgment to prepare for, not just a brief “play” to be performed before the throne of God. God is not playing games with us; He is not interested in the game of “Let’s Pretend.”