It is trendy to call Christians hypocrites. Sadly, it is true more often than we’d like. However, what most people call hypocrisy I would call fallen-ness. A Christian, by the very nature of the term, stands for certain things. That same person violates the beliefs he holds every day! Does that make him a hypocrite? I don’t think so.
The word “hypocrite”, from the Greek word transliterated “Hupokrites”, means “actor”. The word was only used by Jesus. And, he is only recorded as using the phrase on 7 different occasions, some appearing in multiple gospels. (If you are interested, they are Mt 6, 7, 15, 22, 23 – Mk 7 – Lk 6, 12, 13)
Four of the seven times, Jesus was speaking directly to “Pharisees and teachers of the law”. This illustrates that Jesus was most concerned with people who claimed to be speaking on God’s behalf. Today, that would mean not only church leaders, but also anyone who would claim to be speaking for God. (This is a claim I don’t think I’d ever have the nerve to make! I’ve heard lots of people do it though.) I think the message here is to be very careful that when you speak God’s truth to someone, you make sure that you are clearly speaking peer-to-peer, and not as a person who feels they have the moral high ground.
Six of the seven times, Jesus was rebuking people for either judging others or trying to trap Jesus himself. Again, the latter is not something I think I would have been courageous enough or stupid enough to do. At least I hope not! But notice this. These are not people who say “I believe it is wrong to steal”, and then steal. That is merely sinning. (And before you think you’re off the hook, Jesus has way more to say about sinning than hypocrisy!) But think of the common usage of the term “hypocrite”. People throw this term around, but they do so in a way Jesus never did. He was speaking of people who pointed out faults in others that they themselves had – in spades! He was speaking of people who set up obstacles for others. The lesson here would be to realize that we ourselves are sinners, and rather than sitting in judgment over others, should speak to others as people who have received and continue to need God’s grace, just like they do.
But to me, the first recorded instance of Jesus’ use of the term is the most interesting. It is found in Matthew 6. In all other instances, Jesus called people hypocrites because in some way they were acting in a way that was in conflict with their professions of faith. They had they talk, but not the walk. Not so the first time Jesus used the term.
In Jesus time, the entertainment of choice was the theater. Not the cineplex that we call “theater” today. These were places where people could watch a play. They were usually outdoors. There was some sort of elevated stage, and seating for hundreds, or even thousands of people. There were no cameras or projection screens There were no microphones or speakers. Actors on the stage of the Roman theater would speak very loudly. When they expressed themselves, they exaggerated wildly. When you are talking to a friend, you can see in their eyes whether they are happy or sad. If they were hundreds of feet away from you, they might have to pull their hair and tear their clothes while falling to their knees to communicate sadness. Similarly, rather than a chuckle that most of the audience could neither see nor hear, they might grasp their belly and convulse wildly to appear to be in a fit of laughter. With this in mind, read Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-18.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
If I am honest, I think this is the type of hypocrite we see most in the church. See what they are doing? They are exaggerating their speech and actions in order to be noticed. The other uses of ‘hypocrite’ I outlined above spoke of people acting in a way that betrayed their professed beliefs. Jesus doesn’t say that is happening here. There is nothing to indicate that the people giving to the needy were doing anything that countered their faith. Likewise with those who prayed and fasted. It looks to me like Jesus is saying “even when you do things I have commanded you to do, it is possible that you can still screw it up!”
- How about placing your cash in the offering plate with a flourish so that people can see the green?
- How about praying at a restaurant just loud enough, or with your brow furrowed enough, so that people know you are God’s chosen?
- How about hollering “thank you Jesus!” when you find a parking spot? Is it because you are truly thankful, or is it possible you just want attention?
- What about when you give a “prayer request” with just a few too many details, that let people know how good you are or how bad the person who needs prayer is?
- Do any of your cute bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets have ulterior motives to them?
- Does a “Christian t-shirt” really bring people to salvation, or is it to show that you are better?
I could go on and on. I have seen all of these, and done more than I care to admit! My point is not to condemn, but to raise the issue. When people call us hypocrites because we sin, they are simply wrong. We sin because we are human. But if we alienate the world, or try to show each other just how holy we are, we put the hypocrite label on ourselves.