Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
-Mathew 23:23-26 (NIV)
A production company is using our church building as a film location next week. It’s just a short film, not the next Avengers movie, but I’ve been kind of amazed at what’s involved in getting ready for even something of this scale.
One of the things that has to be done is the recruiting of extras. The production company has asked our church to serve; anyone who wants to is supposed to show up on the days of filming in “Sunday best” clothing to be part of the background. I hope we can be convincing; they want us to pretend to be a church.
It occurs to me, though, that pretending to be a church is a lot easier than the real thing.
I guess that’s why it’s so tempting. I guess that’s why most of us, myself included, are tempted from time to time to just play the role of a Christian.
I don’t think Jesus necessarily had anything against actors. He just didn’t want actors in the ranks of those who claimed to be his disciples. In the Gospels, he called some of the religious people who antagonized him hypocrites. Literally, it’s a compound word that describes someone who “interprets underneath,” but it was originally used to describe an actor or stage performer — someone who spoke his lines from underneath a mask. By Jesus’ day it was also used metaphorically of anyone who wore a mask and played a role.
So those religious people who antagonized Jesus were hypocrites because they were more interested in being admired by other people for their piety than really pleasing God. They lived their religious lives for others to see. Sometimes they hid violations of God’s most fundamental commands under a veneer of religiosity, ignoring their responsibility to their parents or taking advantage of widows and calling it a religious requirement. They split theological hairs while ignoring matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They converted people to their own brand of religion while leading them away from the kingdom of God.
They made sure that they looked good for their audience — the people they wanted to impress and even cheat — so that hearts and minds that were dark and sick would remain safely out of view.
They wore their masks and played their roles and had maybe even convinced themselves that in so doing they were pleasing God.
That’s the thing about hypocrisy: It isn’t only those watching who are fooled.
We use the word hypocrite in our world a little differently. Sometimes folks say they want nothing to do with the church because it’s full of hypocrites. They dismiss us all as actors playing a role because they’ve seen (or maybe just heard about) some of the inconsistency in the church. And, to be honest, “inconsistency” is sometimes putting it mildly. There are, without a doubt, hypocrites among those who claim to follow Jesus. Everything he criticized the pretenders of his day for can be applied to some of us. There are those among us who are more interested in being admired by other people for their piety than in really pleasing God. There are those among us who live their religious lives strictly for others to see: They don’t “waste” one act of service or kindness or piety if there isn’t an audience to applaud them.
Some among us hide violations of God’s most basic commands under a veneer of religiosity and split theological hairs while ignoring matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Some convert people to their own brand of religion while leading them away from the kingdom of God. Some perform religion for an audience while dark and sick hearts and minds hide safely behind masks and costumes. There are hypocrites in church.
But it isn’t hypocrisy to honestly struggle with sin. It isn’t hypocrisy to know that anger, drunkenness, lust, and so on don’t please God, but still lose battles with those very things. Preachers, teachers, ministers, pastors, elders — everyone who has ever tried to instruct people in following Jesus or has tried to model what following him looks like — are very aware that we don’t always successfully practice what we preach. In itself, that isn’t hypocrisy.
It becomes hypocrisy when we grow content with pretending. It becomes hypocrisy when the costume and mask are our religion, when there’s no tension between the role we’re playing and the ways in which the heart and mind under the mask and costume betray that role. It becomes hypocrisy when the applause of the audience to whom we’re playing becomes all our faith is about.
So how do I know if I’m a hypocrite? Well, at first blush I’d say that we know if we’re honest with ourselves. I might also say that being concerned about hypocrisy in your life is a pretty solid sign that you aren’t one, or at least that you’re reforming. One of the marks of a hypocrite is that he or she doesn’t see it in his or herself.
Do you pray when you’re alone and no one else can see you? Do you give and serve when no one knows? Do you worship when it’s just you and God? Spend time in Scripture when there’s no one to impress? Those are pretty solid signs that your faith is not just for show, that you aren’t just playing the role of someone following Jesus.
Those same things also happen to be the prescription for treating hypocrisy. If you’re feeling convicted that you may be pretending to follow Jesus instead of actually following him, then make a decision to spend a certain amount of time in private prayer every day. Read the Bible at least as regularly as you go to the gym. Serve someone in need or give to a good cause for no reason other than it’s the kind of thing the Lord wants us to do. Try to stop playing to the audience of your church, friends, family, or whoever, and make an effort to find reward in simply living like Jesus and trusting in him.
If we’ll do those things, our masks will start to slip. That will be OK, though, because underneath we’ll find that our real faces look more like Jesus followers than the characters we’ve been playing.
I hope that we can act sufficiently like a church next week while that movie’s getting made.
The rest of the time, I hope that we’re not acting at all.