Hypocrite. It’s an ugly word, and for good reason: in the English language, to be a hypocrite is to profess something that you don’t actually believe to be true. To be a hypocrite is to be a liar. In Jesus’ time, the Greek word for actor was ὑποκρίτης (hypokrites), which means play-actor. To be a hypocrite in first century Palestine was not an honorable thing, even the good stage actors were not held in particularly high esteem; in fact, just the word hypokrites carried with it the connotation of cowardliness.
The Pharisees, so often the target of Jesus’ wrath, were a pack of hypocrites. They certainly didn’t start out that way, but presumably, over time, they stopped practicing what they preached. They became actors, putting on a show for the Jewish people, all the while not taking to heart the very lines they were reciting. As with any band of hypocrites, they started to hold themselves in high regard. Marlon Brando, who was not exactly self-loathing, once said “The greatest love affairs I have ever witnessed took place with one actor, unassisted.” Lack of self-esteem was not an issue with the Pharisees, so when the God of the universe humbled Himself to be born of a virgin and to walk the streets of Jerusalem, the arrogance of the Pharisees stood in stark relief.
Jesus began His rebuke quietly enough. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe,that observe and do.” Sounds good so far, right? “But do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” They don’t practice what they preach.
There’s not much worse that can be said about a preacher than that. The most famous falls from grace always come from some kind of hypocrisy. Who can forget Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker in the 1990’s? If the preacher Ted Haggard and the politician Larry Craig teach us anything, it’s that people don’t like it when someone in authority tries to cover up who they are by way of the pulpit or the voting box in the Senate. No one likes a hypocrite, and no one will listen to a preacher or a politician once their hypocrisy is exposed.
“What is the main evil of hypocrisy? Well, there are several issues here. For one, over time even an otherwise good person may bask in the glow of public opinion so much that he will forget how unimportant fame is compared with having a good and honest heart. When that day comes (the day you’re tested), what you react negatively to or what you worry about is not the way you really are on the inside but anything that reveals the truth about you. (Another danger is) “If the day arrives when all you want to say to the world is, “Look at me!” that may well be the same day when you yourself will stop looking at God.”1
Preacher “Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in Matthew 23:5 when Jesus says that everything the Pharisees do “is for people to see,” the Greek verb there is theathenai, and even a quick glance at that Greek word suggests its connection to the English word “theater.” What Jesus is saying is that for people like this (people who act like the Pharisees), the entirety of the religious life has become less about God and more about a kind of public theater, a drama meant to unfold in front of the eyes of other people, who in turn are no longer brothers and sisters in God but passive viewers, an audience. But one of the main things Jesus always taught is that the only “audience” we should think about is our great Creator God. When we make other people our audience before whom we perform theatrics designed to garner us lots of attention, our desire truly to serve God in our hearts diminishes”2 in kind.
We are all guilty of a little theater ever once in a while; we are all occasional hypocrites. We all at one time or another say one thing and do another. That’s called sin; but the great thing about the practice of the Faith is that it is a practice; our sins can be forgiven, our hearts cleansed of the desire for the adulation of others, and we can turn again to the God who sees us for who we really are and say, “Here I am, Lord, help me practice what I preach. Help me to be who you want me to be, and then help me to let your light shine brighter than my own.”
1. Scott Hoezee, This Week