By Pastor Glenn Pease
Every able bodied man in Russia must serve in the army, but Abe managed to remain quietly on his farm year after year. One day his neighbor asked him, "Abe, how does a strong young man like you manage to get by without being drafted for the Red Army?" "That is what I am asking myself," replied Abe. "Every time the comrade doctor comes around to give me my physical to see if I am fit for the army, I bet him 500 rubles that I will pass the exam. But would you believe it, never once have I won that bet."
Man is the most clever creature when it comes to figuring out how to get his own way. Hypocrisy, or pretending something that isn't so, is one of his best methods. John Barrymore, the famous actor, once lived with Frank Butler in New York where both were struggling to survive. One day they were down to their last dime. They went to a cheap lunchroom where you could get hotcakes and two cups of coffee for a dime. John waited outside until Butler had ordered the two cups of coffee and had eaten half the hotcakes. Then he dashed in and whispered in Butler's ear. Butler jumped up and dashed out of the lunchroom. John then sat down and drank the second cup of coffee, and finished the hotcakes.
It was all an act, but it was clever, for they were both able to get a meal for a dime. Few would be anxious to condemn this hypocritical little ploy, for their deception intended no one harm. They were simply being clever in making the best of a bad situation.
I suppose that is the reason why all of us are amateur hypocrites. If you have ever responded to the question, "How are you?" with just fine, when in reality you are far less than fine, then you have played the role of the hypocrite. If you have ever smiled and said, "Excuse me," when in fact, you would have liked to scream, or tell somebody off, then you have played the hypocrite. If you have ever gone to a social event pretending you were enjoying yourself when, in fact, you would rather be several others places, then you have played the hypocrite. If you have ever pretended to like something that you really didn't like at all, then you have played the hypocrite. We could go on and on, but I think you get the point. All of us to some degree are actors and pretenders, and that is what the word hypocrite means. It refers to the actors who put on a mask of someone else, and play the role of that person. The hypocrite is one who pretends to be someone he is not.
Since we all do this on occasion, we need to establish that it is not an entirely negative experience. There is no point in feeling guilty for all pretending. Wearing the mask and pretending to be fine when we are not is often an act of love. We feel it is not appropriate to burden others with our ills in all situations and times. Much of our pretense is simply to prevent unnecessary concern about what we expect to be a passing experience. What a pain life would be if I was obligated to tell everybody of every bad feeling I had every time they asked me how I am. We have the right to choose how much, and to whom, we reveal the status of our health, and many other private matters, and that is why we play the hypocrite.
Sometimes it is a mistake when we do not play the hypocrite. We have worn the mask all day, and we have smiled when we didn't feel like it, and we were sweet when we didn't feel like it, and so when we get home we throw away the mask and act just how we feel with those we love the most. The sad thing is that we have been wise with strangers, but now we let it all hang out with our family. We no longer hide our anger and frustration. The mask is off, and we are done acting for the day. Now we are for real, and the real is not very pleasant. We play the good guy or gal all day, and then come home and act the villain.
The family could use a little of the hypocrisy that you have lavished on the world. Many a marriage could be renewed by mates pretending to be as sweet, loving, and thoughtful as they were when they were first dating. What I am saying is that there is a positive side to hypocrisy where we put on a mask and pretend to be in a better mood than we really feel. This pretense can lead to that very better mood, and even if it doesn't, it is an act of love and kindness toward those who most need it. We waste too much of our hypocrisy on people who do not care when those who love us would give a standing ovation for the same acting.
Hypocrisy is sometimes a key sign of sanity. Knowing when to put on the mask and hide reality that hurts and embarrasses others is part of loving your neighbor as yourself. Those in insane asylums lose this sensitivity. If their underclothes do not feel comfortable, or are on backwards, they may take them off right in the middle of a group. There is no pretense, and no mask. It they feel like cursing you, they do it. If they want to spit in your eye, you can expect spit to fly. Nothing is held back in language or behavior. The sane person, however, smiles and pretends to be comfortable in their backwards underwear until they can change it in private.
The sane person is constantly evaluating the wisdom and value of his words and behavior. This means that what he says and does may not always correspond to what he feels. He is, therefore, acting, or being different on the outside from what he is on the inside. This is not wrong, but very right, for it means he has the capacity to choose how he influences his environment, and not be at the mercy of his feelings, or a slave to circumstances. For the computer it is garbage in and garbage out, but for a person it can be garbage in and a gourmet dinner out, for the person can choose how to respond where a computer cannot.
Much of our hypocrisy, or play acting, ranks as a virtue. Even Jesus while walking with the two on the road to Emmaus pretended he was going on further, but was glad when they invited him to stay with them. It is the experience we all have when we say, "I am full," but are so glad when the hostess encourages us to take another helping. Much hypocrisy is just common courtesy. Love covers a multitude of sins, and does so often by means of hypocrisy, or by pretending so as not to bring out the worst and call attention to the weaknesses and follies of others.
Most of the entertainment of our culture is due to man's ability to be a hypocrite, that is an actor who can pretend to be somebody else. By means of these actors we can be, by pleasant deception, transported to other times and places, including biblical times and places. We can experience in many ways the message of God's Word through these actors. We are, in fact, disappointed if the hypocrisy fails, and we feel it is too fake, and does not move us to feel that we have tasted the real past. The point of all this praise for hypocrisy is not to exalt it excessively, but in order that we might maintain a sense of balance and perspective as we focus on it as one of the sins that Jesus most despised.
Nothing made Jesus more angry than the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. No other sin is so blasted by Jesus. He never raked any other sin over the red hot coals of His judgment like He did the sin of hypocrisy. The Gospel of Matthew is full of the fury of Jesus against this sin. There are more references in Matthew than in all the rest of the New Testament, and here in chapter 6 Jesus strikes at hypocrisy three times.
In chapter 5 Jesus had been dealing with major sins, but now He begins chapter 6 dealing with the master sin. Jesus warned His disciples in Luke 12:1, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy." This sin can turn everything good into evil, and that includes our religious faith and practice. It substitutes external show for internal reality. In Matt. 15:7-8 Jesus said, "You hypocrites. Well did Isaiah prophesy of you saying this people draw high to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me." This is a very uncomfortable sin to deal with, because Jesus was so down on it, and we all can be made to feel guilty, for all of us are aware of the gap between our external public life, and our internal private life.
It is easy to manipulate people by the power of guilt in this area. One pastor had a wife complain to him of her husband's unkind behavior in the home. He assured her he would help her solve her problem. So he announced from the pulpit on Sunday that he had become aware of a gentleman, much respected in the congregation, who was behaving in a very unchristian way at home. He said he would expose this man if he did not acknowledge his hypocrisy by placing a twenty dollar bill in the offering, and by mending his ways. When the offering was counted there was an unprecedented fifty twenty dollar bills in the plates. This sounds like it could be a good fund raising scheme, but the problem is that it is doing the very thing Jesus is condemning in this chapter, and that is the abuse of religious power.
When religious power is used, not for the glory of God, but for the glory of man, that is hypocrisy at its worst. It is the devil's favorite show, for he loves such acting as this, for it permits man to be very religious and at the same time be anti-God. That is why it is life's most dangerous sin, and why Jesus so blasted it. Other sins are clearly anti-God, but everybody knows that they are. If you lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, or murder, you are doing what is out of God's will and everybody knows it. But hypocrisy is pro-religious, and it can even be super religious. It is one of the most subtle forms of evil that exists. Other sins are clearly identified, but this one is hidden and often identified as good. It is using the good for evil ends. There is much power in religion, just as there is in politics, and that is why both of these realms are so subject to corruption. Power corrupts, and that is why most of the scandals of life will be found in the realm of religion and politics.
Jesus sounds this warning right after He reaches the pinnacle of perfection at the end of chapter 5. Be perfect He says, and then He adds, be careful, as He begins chapter 6. Pride goes before a fall, and, therefore, perfection is an ideal place for which to take a tumble. You would think you could be safe if you have reached perfection, but not so, for you must be ever on your toes lest you lose you balance. Your very status of being just what God wants you to be can be the source of the temptation to be a hypocrite. Satan was just what God wanted him to be, but he saw his status as an opportunity to get in on some of the glory of God. He was thinking, why should God get it all, and he choose to be a competitor rather than a cooperative servant. That is where hypocrisy has its origin. It is the desire to rob God of glory that is due to him alone by using religious power for self glory.
Hypocrisy is being religious, not to please God, but men. Hypocrisy is an appeal to the crowd rather than to God. Hypocrisy is a public show for popular acclaim, and not private devotion for God's approval. The goal of hypocrisy is to use religion to get your will done on earth, and not God's will. In short, it is the ultimate idolatry. The very sin that Israel thought they had eliminated finally crept back into their culture, and it was again the key cause for their judgment.
The Pharisees were a very good part of the history of Judaism. They preserved the spirit of Judaism, and they became the religious leaders who kept the law alive, and kept Israel on the right track. There is so much good you can say about them. Even Jesus, who blasted them with severe criticism, gave them a great compliment in Matt. 23:2-3 where He said, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." Jesus was saying that they were good teachers and preachers, and what they said was often very good and true. The problem was that they had gone beyond the good and true, and they had their own hypocritical religion where all that mattered was themselves.
God does not matter, and people do not matter, but if I can control the power involved in people's desire to know God, that is what matters. Such was the thinking of the Pharisees, and so they were into a do it yourself religion where you do it yourself for yourself. There is no greater perversion of religion than this, and that is why Jesus so condemned them. In this chapter Jesus shows how the Pharisees took the 3 major areas of religious life and perverted them so that the glory went, not to God, but to themselves. The whole law is summed up in loving God and your neighbor as yourself. This means that the full, complete, and perfect religious life is one of three relationships. It is upward to God, outward to others, and inward to self. Remove anyone of these three and you have a non-biblical religious life. The trinity of relationships is the only acceptable biblical faith.
Specializing in loving God and ignoring human need will produce a man made religion. Focus on meeting human need and leaving God out will also produce a man made religion. Develop a combination of the two without an emphasis on self-esteem and personal growth, and you again fall short. Unless God, others, and self are all a vital part of your religious life you do not follow Christ and His Word. A truly biblical Christianity will always have this three fold emphasis.
The Pharisees had all three, but they were counterfeits. It looked good on the surface, but underneath, the first two were only faked for the sake of the third, which was self-glory. The self is a rightful part of the true trinity of righteousness, but when the self becomes the primary focus, and God and others are only used as aids for self exaltation, then you have idolatry. This is the danger that all religious people face. Jesus would not bother warning His followers about the great danger of hypocrisy unless He knew it would be a problem all through history.
We live in a super bowl culture where the bigger is the better. The more show with publicity and celebrities, the more we like it. We want our religious life to be like the rest of it, and be popular and spectacular. Religion is not just to please God, but to keep those cards and letters coming. It is not enough that the angels of heaven rejoice over every sinner who repents. We need the applause of men as well, for what matters is not that God's will is done, but what matters is the ratings.
Let's face it, much contemporary Christianity is showmanship. That is the name of the game, and we need to see that as dangerous as it is, it is not all bad. Paul said he tried to be all things to all men that by all means he might win some. If our culture is to be reached, then it can be assumed that God will call and equip some of His servants to use showmanship to reach it. Risky as it is, there can be blanket condemnation. But we must be ever careful that we do not become culture and celebrity centered rather than Christ centered.
One of the main teachings of Jesus in Matt. 6 is that religion is a dangerous business when it becomes a public matter. That is why Jesus is rejecting showmanship, and pushing for a life of private and quiet devotion. In our culture it is the celebrity Christian who is known and applauded by millions, who is the ideal. For Jesus the ideal Christian is the obscure Christian who gives, and prays, and denies himself, not for the crowd, but for God alone. Jesus would not condemn anyone just because they become popular, for He became a very popular figure in His own day. People followed Him by the thousands, and they flocked from everywhere to hear Him and be healed. Popularity is no sin, but you will observe that Jesus in His personal religious life was very private.
We have no record of what Jesus gave, for He did not make an issue of it. We know He prayed often, but He went off alone and did not use His prayer life to draw attention to Himself. He is the only one who could have done it, but He did not stand in the temple like the Pharisee and pray, "I thank God I am not as other men." The prayer life of Jesus was primarily private. As for His fasting, He did not do much of this at all. The Holy Spirit drove Him into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting before His temptation, but this was an experience He had all alone. If He ever fasted again, it was a private matter, and not an issue He made public. The point is, the private life of devotion to God is far superior to the public show of your religion, and primarily so because you prevent the ever present danger of hypocrisy. Public religion makes you a wide open target for Satan to tempt you to use your religious faith for self gain.
It is better to be an obscure unknown Christian who pleases God than to be a popular Christian who gets hooked on the praises of men, and then settles for the rewards men can give, and loses the rewards only God can give. There is high risk in being a public Christian. God calls some to this high risk role, but it is not for us to envy them, but rather to pray for them to be able to escape the dangers of their role. Don't feel bad if your giving, devotion, and self-denial are private matters known only to God, for you have the best chance of receiving God's, "Well done thou good and faithful servant." The more public you become the greater risk that you could lose it all by being enticed into playing the hypocrite. Jesus says that those who seek by their religious practices to get the praises of men have received all the reward they will get. What a poor trade that is, for the rewards of man's popularity is as fleeting as the life of a snowflake on a warm day.
Jesus wants us to understand that it is possible to do the right thing in life for the wrong reason. Everything good can be done for a very self-centered goal, and not to please God, or to help men. Does it really matter what the motive is as long as the job gets done? Yes it does. The motive reveals the true inner self, and if all you do is for self glory, then you are competing with God rather than cooperating with Him. The great issue of life from day one was, who is the center of life-God or man? Satan fell because he wanted to be in the center. Man fell because Adam and Eve wanted to be in center. The Pharisees fell because they choose to move on to center stage, and get the glory for being so religious. Everything they did was for effect. They would have loved our day of directing plays and movies with all of the spectacular effects. They gave with gusto to get the attention and honor of men. They prayed with public eloquence to impress people with their spirituality. They fasted with flare to call attention to their sacrificial devotion.
Jesus did tell us back in 5:16 that we are to let our light so shine before men that they see our good works, but that sentence closes with, "And glorify your Father in heaven." There is the catch, true righteousness seeks the glory of God, but hypocrisy does the same things for self-glory. Candle light is light for seeing. It points to other things, but a chandelier is designed to call attention to itself. The Christian is to be a candle that lights the way to Christ, and not a chandelier calling attention to themselves, and pulling attention away from Christ.
It is not an absolute, but a general principle that display, conspicuousness, and ostentation, or, in other words, making a big deal of any religious practice in public, is a man centered rather than a God centered activity. For many, the public display is the name of the game, but for Jesus it is the name of the shame, for it tends to push God to the fringe, and put man in the center. The greatest battle Jesus ever fought was in Gethsemane, and He won because He was able to pray, "Not my will but Thine be done." That is the key battle of life. Whose will is to be done? This battle of the wills is the crucial battle that determines whether our life will be God centered or man centered.
Jesus starts chapter 6 with a condemnation of hypocrisy, but chapter 7 starts with a condemnation of being a judge. This clearly means that Jesus is not calling us to a witch hunt. He is not trying to fire us up to determine who is, or is not, a hypocrite. Milton in his Paradise Lost wrote,
For neither man nor angel can discern
Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone.
However accurate that is, it is not our job to label people for being hypocrites. This chapter is a call to self-examination. Your responsibility is to make sure you are not falling for the trap, but are seeking God's best by doing what you do to please Him, and not for the praises of men. Sometimes the enemy you need to love is none other than yourself. You need to see that you may be your own worse enemy, and that you may be falling into the snare of being religious for your own ego, and your own purposes, and not because you really care about the kingdom of God and His purposes. This could rob you of your rewards in both time and eternity. Therefore, listen to Christ, and examine yourself, and ask yourself questions about your motives. Keep yourself on that narrow road that leads to what is best for you, because it leads to you making sure that the glory of God is your primary motive. When this is your master motive then you will practice only helpful and not harmful hypocrisy.