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A Note on Hypocrisy


Matthew 6:1-6;16-18            James 1:19-27

“Hypocrite!” It’s the charge levelled fastest at someone who makes a religious profession and whose practice then appears not to measure up to the profession. The charge is levelled only at people who make a religious profession. It’s never levelled at people who make some other profession yet don’t measure up. It’s not levelled at politicians, for instance. In fact a discrepancy, even a huge discrepancy, between the politician’s promise and her practice is accepted because expected. But the same discrepancy between profession and practice is neither expected nor accepted in Christians. “Hypocrite!” We can’t imagine being called anything worse.


I: [a] What is a hypocrite anyway? The English word is derived from the Greek hupokrites. In Greek hupokrites is an actor, playing any role at all, in a Greek play. In the ancient Greek theatre each actor played four or five different parts in the course of one play. The actor wore a mask. When it was time to assume a different role, he stepped behind a screen and changed his mask. In addition, each false face the actor assumed had a device in it that magnified the actor’s voice. A hypocrite, in modern parlance, is someone who wears a false face, all the while talking in a loud voice. A hypocrite is considered a play-actor, a religious play-actor, who loudly advertises his phoniness. It’s no wonder we cringe when he hear the word used of anyone else and crumble when it’s used of us.

[b] Does hypocrisy have to be deliberate? Can there be an unknowing, unconscious hypocrisy? Is it right to use the label when someone isn’t even aware of glaring discrepancy between profession and practice? Let’s approach these questions one at a time.

We all agree that conscious, contrived hypocrisy is disgusting. A calculated two-facedness that parades itself, cynically exploiting others, callously furthering self-interest – this is simply reprehensible. One name that comes to mind from the world of American fiction is the name of Elmer Gantry. Gantry is a travelling preacher who professes allegiance to the gospel but who behaves deliberately in a manner that contradicts the gospel, regards people as suckers, and furthers his promiscuous agenda. Any such person who does this in real life properly arouses our disgust.

[c] Yet there’s also a discrepancy between profession and practice where the discrepancy isn’t intentional, isn’t cynically exploitative, and isn’t knowingly self-serving. In this situation we aren’t calculatingly hypocritical and we don’t want the charge levelled at us. At the same time, other people see only the discrepancy. They don’t bother asking us if we are aware of our inconsistency. They don’t bother finding out what gave rise to the inconsistency. They simply hang the label on us disdainfully and then dismiss us.

If we don’t want the label hung on us where we think it’s inappropriate, then we shouldn’t hang it on others where it is – or might be – inappropriate. We should make for others the same allowance we want made for ourselves.

Think about situations of fear. Fear can drive a wedge between anyone’s profession and practice where there’s no intentional two-facedness at all. Fear disorders people and impels them to do what they’d never do if they weren’t terrified.

One afternoon I was driving through a snowstorm in rural New Brunswick when I became stuck in a snowdrift. I was in a narrow rock-cut with twenty-foot high vertical walls. In no time more cars were stuck behind me. The wind was blowing a gale. The snow was blinding. Obviously nobody behind could move past me, and so the man behind me put his tire-chains on my car and I inched my way out of the snowdrift, out through the rock-cut. Once I past the rock-cut I was in a white-out, and could see only a few feet beyond the hood of my car. Yet I was determined to continue driving, however slowly. Obviously the motorists behind couldn’t get out of the rock-cut since I alone had tire-chains. I drove a little further. I wondered how I was ever going to return the tire chains to their owner. Stupidly I thought I would leave them dangling from a stranger’s fence when – if — I got to the next town. (When the storm cleared perhaps the owner would see them dangling there and recognize them as his.) Meanwhile I had deserted the other motorists. By now I wasn’t thinking cogently at all. I was rationalizing behaviour that was senseless and inexcusable. Suddenly a glimmer of reason returned. I stopped, removed the tire chains, and began walking them back to the owner. In seven seconds I was lost in the blizzard, utterly lost. I couldn’t see five feet. I knew I was going to freeze to death, and wondered how long it would take. In a few minutes two men appeared on a snowmobile. They took me to their home (which they could somehow find in the blizzard.) That evening I thought much about my abandonment of the stranded motorists, my apparent theft of the tire chains, my rationalized self-interest.

Abandonment; theft; self-interest: doesn’t it add up to the label “hypocrite”? I understood at that moment, as I have understood ever since, what fear does to people. Fear distorts thinking and bends people into a shape no one would recognize.

As a pastor I see people who appear to have acted hypocritically. Certainly they have behaved in a manner that contradicts their profession. Others are quick to point the finger and lay the charge. More often than not, however, the person accused of hypocrisy hasn’t been cunning or careless or self-serving. She’s simply been afraid, terribly afraid.

A friend and parishioner, highly placed in New Brunswick Hydro, told me how employee theft is detected. In one case a few dollars — $18, $35, $27 – was missing each day from an office where townspeople paid their hydro bills. There were four cashiers in the office. Which cashier was absconding with the money? Myself, I wouldn’t know whom to question first. My friend called in the head of NB Hydro Security, a former RCMP officer. This man said it was really very simple: you look first for someone who is afraid and who needs money to quell her fear. He sniffed around and learned that one cashier, a young woman, had recently been deserted by her husband. She was receiving no assistance from her dead-beat “ex.” She had several children to support. Fearing for herself and her children, she was desperate. She had pilfered money from the cash drawer. No one is excusing her. Still, how badly do we want to beat her up?

Fear. Wasn’t this Peter’s situation in the courtyard when his master was about to be lynched and someone said to him, “Heh! You and the Nazarene have the same accent!”?

Fear isn’t the only event that opens up a gap between profession and practice. Ignorance does this too. When we act out of ignorance we’ll be accused of hypocrisy, even though we aren’t deliberately two-faced. If we were raised in a vehemently anti-Roman Catholic or anti-Asian or anti-Black household then we’ve absorbed unconsciously the prejudice that Roman Catholics are subversive, Asians are sneaky (they never stop smiling, do they?) and Black people are violent. All of us have blind spots. The tricky thing about blind spots is that we don’t know where they are, until one day someone calls us a hypocrite and we don’t know why. To be sure, the truth that Jesus Christ is certainly remedies our ignorance and drives out prejudice. Still, this doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen until we’re confronted.

Not only ignorance and not only fear foster discrepancies between profession and practice: sin-vitiated vulnerability does it too. We may think we are possessed of resolute, resilient character. We may even feel strong. No doubt we are strong – in some areas of life; but not in all. Each of us has an Achilles heel. Temptation doesn’t “hook” us all in exactly the same place, but temptation hooks us unusually easily in some place. We aren’t all spiritually vulnerable in the same place; but we’re all spiritually vulnerable some place. When we point the finger at someone, we forget that his vulnerability is now displayed publicly while ours is known only privately. If ours becomes public knowledge (it becomes public knowledge only in a situation where we are publicly humiliated) we’ll maintain we shouldn’t be called hypocritical since we didn’t intend any duplicity. Then we should be less trigger-happy when faced with our neighbour’s inconsistency. The apostle Paul says, “If any one of you is overtaken in a trespass, you who are spiritual should set him right gently. Look to yourself, every one of you. You may be tempted too.”

At the same time, I’d never pretend that all hypocrisy is born of fear or ignorance or vulnerability. The people whom Jesus pronounced hypocrites in our gospel lesson this morning; they set out every day to misrepresent themselves and thereby deceive others. They were deliberate phonies and they aimed at profiting from their phoniness. In their case the disparity between profession and practice couldn’t be excused at all. It was despicable.

What about you and me? Is there any one among us who wants to say he hasn’t been despicable?     We aren’t going to deny the darkness that still lurks in us. We should simply admit that sometimes our residual perversity surfaces and we are hypocrites plain and simple.


II: — The truth is, just because you and I profess faith in Jesus Christ the charge of hypocrisy will never be far from us. In light of this, what should we do?

[a] In the first place we must ask ourselves if we are serious about our discipleship. Are we serious, sincere, or are we playing games? Do we view soberly the discrepancies between profession and practice? Or do we dismiss them cavalierly, excusing ourselves with lame extenuations: “Nobody’s perfect”; “I’m doing the best I can”; “What do people expect, anyway?”; “What makes them think they’re any better?” These are the stock evasions of the insincere. At all times and in all circumstances we have to ask ourselves, “Am I serious and sincere in my aspiration to be Christ’s follower?”

[b] In the second place we mustn’t flee into denial or denunciation or counter-accusation when we are confronted with the truth about ourselves. Don’t we thank the person who takes us aside and tells us our slip is showing or we have egg on our face or lipstick on our teeth or our zipper needs zipping? We thank people who spare us public embarrassment in matters as slight as this. How much more we ought to thank godly people who want only to spare us self-humiliation and advance us in godliness. What such people perceive in us is nearly always something we haven’t yet perceived in ourselves. For this reason the gentlest correction we hear we always find startling.

A very kind woman one day took me aside and gently, soberly said to me, “Victor, sarcasm riddles virtually everything you say. Regardless of what you intend, your sarcasm leaves you appearing bitter, contemptuous and snobbish. This doesn’t befit a clergyman.” Only a fool thinks she’s anything but an ally.

King David was married. One day he fancied Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. Uriah wasn’t in the royal orbit. Uriah didn’t have David’s social standing or David’s political power or David’s admiring flatterers. Uriah had nothing to distinguish himself from countless others who had nothing – except, of course, his beautiful wife. David saw Bathsheba taking a bath. David was already married to Michal, daughter of late King Saul; to Michal, a blue-blood. Bathsheba was merely a commoner – but not common: she was gorgeous. David instructed his military commander to place Uriah in the front line of the next battle. Uriah perished. David had Bathsheba to himself, even as he never mentioned any of this to his wife. The shocking thing about the whole incident wasn’t merely that David had done it, but that he appeared not to be the slightest bit upset about it.

Then the prophet Nathan took David aside. “Tell me, your royal highness, how would you feel about a rich rancher who had a 10,000 acre spread, countless livestock, not to mention a freezer full of meat, and who then stole and barbecued the one and only lamb belonging to a poor subsistence farmer? How would you feel about that?” “I’d hang that mean-spirited creep from the tallest tree I could find,” David roared back. “When next you are walking past a mirror,” replied Nathan, “have a look.” What did David do next? When he had recovered enough to say anything he croaked, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Not when we are unfairly attacked but rather when we are confronted with the truth about ourselves; at such a time we shouldn’t fly off into vehement denial. We shouldn’t launch a counter-attack. We should own the truth about ourselves and say with David, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

[c] In the third place we must remember that the truth about ourselves we’ve just heard is the penultimate truth; it’s one stage removed from the final truth. The ultimate truth about Christ’s people is that our identity is rooted not in ourselves but in Jesus Christ. Ultimately we are those whom he names his younger brothers and sisters. As we are bound to him in faith he holds us so closely to himself that when the Father sees the Son with whom the Father is ever pleased, the Father sees you and me included in the Son.

John Calvin maintained that rightly to see Christ, properly to see Christ is always to see ourselves included in him. If in our mind’s eye we can see ourselves “here” and see our Lord “over there,” then what we’re looking at isn’t Christ, said Calvin. Reading scripture with remarkable perception Calvin said tirelessly, “Christ comes only to make us his.” Who then is Jesus Christ? He is the one who will never be without his people.

Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus told his disciples, “I have called you friends.” Just that. In other words, regardless of what others call us or we call ourselves, we are Christ’s friends. This doesn’t mean we’ve been given no more than a new name tag. Rather, what he calls us we are in truth. We are his friends; he “tells his people by the company they keep.” We belong to Christ; we live in his company; his arm around us binds us so tightly to him that he insists we are included in him.

Whenever Luther was attacked by others or found himself attacking himself – in other words, whenever Luther was feeling worst about himself – he recalled his favourite scripture verse. “Your life; your real life, is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) Who you and I are, in the midst of all the inconsistencies about us that some people take malicious delight in pointing out; who you and I are ultimately – our identity, in other words – is rooted in Christ. Since it’s rooted in the Son of God it’s known to God alone. Yet because it’s known to God alone it’s secure there, guaranteed there, inviolable there, preserved there eternally.

When we are face-to-face with someone who is physically disabled and physically disfigured (for instance, someone with severe cerebral palsy) we admit that that person isn’t what she seems. Her body may be misshapen, grotesque even. Yet we know that no human being, no person can be reduced to her physical appearance. We should be as ready to admit that no one can be reduced to appearance of any sort. We aren’t ultimately as we appear. Ultimately we are our Lord’s friends, cherished, held onto, held up, secured. Since we are found in Christ we are known in Christ, know who we are in Christ; namely his friend, that friend whom he never abandons to our enemies and his, that friend whom he never fails or forsakes.

[d] Finally we must go to sleep at night with the word from the apostle James ringing in our ears: “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” We are judged, most certainly, for the hypocrisy we see in ourselves and the hypocrisy we’ve yet to see in ourselves. God’s judgement is indeed true. Yet it’s penultimate; his mercy is ultimate. The final word we hear God pronounce upon us is a word of mercy.

Then this is the final word we should pronounce over others. It’s even the final word we should pronounce over ourselves. “Mercy triumphs over judgement.”

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                  

March 2005