This past Sunday morning we continued in our series, What Jesus Hated. This week we talked about the charge of hypocrisy. The church is often…and often fairly…accused of hypocrisy. The world hates hypocrisy…or at least professes to hating it. So did Jesus. In this next part of our series, we are looking at some hard words Jesus had for the religious hypocrites of His day and what those might mean for us. Thanks for reading and sharing.
And the Oscar Goes to…
I want you to think for just a minute about what is your favorite movie of all time. Actually, that may be a bit too difficult of a question to answer. If you’re like me, there are several films that could top your list, and it really depends on the day and your mood as to which one is currently at the top of the pile. Let’s narrow down our query just a bit. Think about what your favorite scene from a movie is. That’s different from an entire movie. It may be that you don’t really care for the movie itself, but that one scene absolutely captured your attention, your imagination, your very heart. Personally, my favorite movie is still probably Robinhood: Prince of Thieves. In terms of a scene that makes me want to jump up and shout with excitement, I don’t think there will ever be a better film moment than the scene just before the climactic battle against Thanos and his assembled forces in Avengers: Endgame when Captain America hears his friend, Falcon’s voice (for the first time in five years, no less) on the radio, telling him to “Watch his six,” just before portals start opening and everyone shows up for the battle. I honestly don’t believe Marvel will ever top that. But my favorite single scene of all time is the climax of Apollo 13 when they are watching for the space capsule’s parachutes to open, and then they suddenly do and Tom Hanks’ voice comes over the radio saying they are safe and sound. That makes me tear up every single time I watch it.
Thinking about your scene, what is it exactly that makes it your favorite scene? Is it the emotion of the moment? The action of it? The humor? The drama? What makes it so compelling for you? Whatever it happens to be, there’s something that lies behind it other than the scene itself. That’s the acting. Your favorite scene is your favorite scene because of the acting. It’s because of the role the characters play and how they play those roles. I’m not specifying whether the acting is good or bad. Your favorite scene could involve some spectacularly bad acting, or something which was rewarded with an Oscar. That much doesn’t matter. You like the scene because of the acting.
We all like good acting. Sometimes we like bad acting because it’s bad, but just about everybody likes a scene that is played really well. There’s a reason famous actors are as famous as they are. Everybody celebrates them for their ability to take us into a story, to bring us to places other than we could hope to get on our own. But as much as we love a good performance, we only love it when it is an intentional performance. Even if it’s a secret performance that we don’t find out about until later—a hidden camera sort of thing—we want it to be intentional. When people stay “in character” outside the bounds of the performance, we’re a whole lot less comfortable with the whole affair. As a matter of fact, we have a word to describe people who put on a performance with their lives; who talk one way but live another. We call them hypocrites. And we hate hypocrites.
This morning we are in the second part of our new teaching series, What Jesus Hated. Over the span of these four weeks, we are talking about some things Jesus really didn’t like. Actually, we are talking about some things our culture doesn’t like, of which it accuses the church of doing, but which Jesus Himself didn’t like, which means the culture and Jesus agree. And when the culture and Jesus both agree on something…we should probably pay attention. We should pay attention for a couple of important reasons. Number one, if Jesus and the culture both agree that something isn’t good, then we as professed followers of Jesus had probably better make extra certain we do not find ourselves guilty of whatever it is. The consequences of getting whatever it is wrong in that case will likely be even worse than we can imagine. The second reason this is so important to see is that if Jesus and the culture agree on this thing, we have a major inroads when it comes to having Gospel conversations with people around us who aren’t yet interested in following Jesus. Perhaps they’ve had a bad experience with the church and use something like an accusation of hypocrisy to justify their hard feelings. If we can humbly show them, though, that they are in the same place as Jesus on this point, they just may be willing to explore with us some other places they might be on the same page with Him.
Last week, we got started on this little adventure by talking about judgmentalism. “You can’t judge me,” is a common refrain in our culture. And, as we saw in a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would tend to agree. Jesus hates judgmentalism not because He doesn’t believe we should ever make any kind of a negative assessment of another person’s choices, but because judgmentalism by itself is unloving. It merely highlights something wrong and leaves the person guilty of the thing out on a limb to face its consequences all alone. That’s not loving. As we looked a little deeper at a well-known, but generally misunderstood bit of teaching from Jesus, we discovered that Jesus’ goal is to get us to move beyond judgmentalism to godly accountability. Don’t settle for being judgmental when accountability is the goal.
This morning, I want for us to see if we can’t tackle the oft-made charge of hypocrisy. Just for fun, I want you to raise your hand if you have ever heard someone outside the church accuse the church or Christians generally of hypocrisy. I won’t ask you to out yourselves on this one, but I suspect there are some folks in the room who have made that charge of hypocrisy themselves. Unfortunately, one of the things the church is better known for in the broader culture—whether deservedly or not; that’s a separate matter—is hypocrisy. The world around us is often fairly convinced that we don’t really believe all the things we say we believe, especially when it comes to our professed beliefs about what our behavior should be like. And do you know why they are fairly convinced of that? Because they have seen people who profess Christ as Lord behaving in ways that really aren’t any different from how people who haven’t made any such confession behave. In fact, sometimes, the behavior of believers has been worse than the world. They hear us say one thing, see us do another thing, and then label us accordingly.
Across the history of the church, there have been some pretty well-known examples of hypocrisy writ large. There were a series of Popes in the Middle Ages who were legendary for their immorality. There were a couple of these men who were supposed to have taken a vow of singleness and celibacy who made certain that their children succeeded them on Saint Peter’s throne. Much more recently than that, there have been a number of pastors and other high profile Christian leaders who were later discovered—sometimes not until after their deaths—to have lived horribly immoral lives. Our own Southern Baptist Convention was recently put in the spotlight because for all of our talk about loving the least of these, we had some of our leaders not only not abide by such talk, but who enabled others to not abide by it as well. It was a pretty shameful affair, on the whole. So, yes, we’re often hit with the charge of hypocrisy today, but this is because in some ways, we have a hard-earned reputation for it. In other words, “Hypocrite” isn’t always a charge so much as it is a description.
As much as we don’t like hypocrisy, though, I think Jesus liked it even less. And the hypocrisy He hated the most was religious hypocrisy. There’s no hypocrisy quite like religious hypocrisy. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, we are going to be back in Matthew’s Gospel again this week. Sometime during Jesus’ final week on earth, Jesus was in the temple courtyard interacting with the people. On one particular occasion, a group of an assortment of religious leaders from different political parties all came to Jesus, one after the next, and presented Him one challenging hypothetical situation or nuanced legal question after another in hopes of getting Him to say something they could use to turn public opinion against Him. The crowds had been putty in His hands all week, and they were getting pretty worried about His rising stature. But they simply couldn’t get one over on Him. He was just too smart.
Finally, Jesus got His turn to talk, and with all of these religious leaders standing there listening, He spoke to the crowds about them. Find your way to Matthew 23 and let’s see how some of this monologue went. “Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it.’” Now, pause right there for just a second. Does His saying that surprise you at all? It’s hard to imagine that with as much trouble as Jesus got from this group that He would be actively telling the people to submit to them. But Jesus understood authority. Whether or not they misused it, this group of leaders had their authority from God because all authority comes from God. And, they may have been raging hypocrites, but they were actually pretty good and faithful when it came to unpacking the Law for the people to follow. That wasn’t the problem, though. Their words were typically on point. Their behavior was the thing at issue.
“The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them. They do everything to be seen by others: They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. [Phylacteries are leather boxes pious Jewish men wear on their foreheads during prayer times that have bits of the Scriptures placed in them. When God told the people to bind His word to their foreheads, they took Him literally.] They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people.”
The problem was that these guys were doing all kinds of things to make themselves look religious in the eyes of the people. And they were religious. They were incredibly dedicated to their religion. Some of them really bought it, but a lot of them didn’t. Being dedicated to whatever happens to be the dominant cultural religion has always been a way to get power and prestige for yourself. It doesn’t really matter either whether or not there is any genuine piety to accompany the religiousness. As long as you are good at playing the game, the world around you will generally reward your dedication. In Jesus’ day, Judaism was in that particular seat. For a long time, Christianity was in our culture. It isn’t any longer. Other religions have risen up to take its place even though they don’t tend to use that particular word to describe themselves.
The thing about getting good at religion and rising through the ranks of a culturally dominant religion is that it allows you the privilege of calling people further down the totem pole from you to behave in certain ways even if you aren’t exactly consistent in maintaining such a standard in your own life. And you can do this because you can hide behind your religiosity. “Look how good at the religion I am!” “Look at how perfect all of my sacrifices are!” “Look how well I keep almost all the rules almost all the time!” “Look how well I keep all the people around me in line…or at least make them feel really bad about failing!” “Look how vigorously I persecute the enemies of the religion!” “Surely, in light of all of these other things, we can excuse this little bit of…indiscretion over here, right?”
Jesus wasn’t having it. Starting in v. 13 Jesus spoke a series of condemnations of the religious leaders of the Jews. Each one of them begins with the phrase “Woe to you.” That was language Jesus’ audience would have understood. It was prophetic language. It was language used by prophets when announcing impending judgment.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in.” They were acting like gatekeepers to God’s kingdom. But instead of welcoming guards who were encouraging people through the doors, they were acting more like bouncers outside a nightclub who had taken it upon themselves to only allow in those who were “on the list,” so to speak. And in their efforts to guard the gates, they weren’t bothering to enter themselves.
He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are!” They made the process of joining their ostensibly righteous ranks incredibly difficult. Yet once someone managed to get in, instead of becoming a true student of the Law, dedicated to expanding the righteousness of God to all peoples, they just made clones of themselves. I wonder if Jesus had someone like Paul in mind when He said this.
He said, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the temple, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath.’” These folks were professional hair-splitters when it came to the Law of Moses. They found all sorts of ways to create legal loopholes that apparently honored the letter of the Law, but allowed their most dedicated disciples to live however they pleased as long as they knew the secrets.
He said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, but gulp down a camel!” The scribes and Pharisees would make a big show of keeping the smallest, most minute aspects of the law with scrupulous attention to detail, and all the people would marvel at how religious and dedicated they were. Surely if you were keeping such seemingly insignificant matters as these, then you must be knocking it out of the park with the big stuff. But they weren’t keeping the big stuff. The small stuff was merely an effective smokescreen for them to speak one way but live another.
He went on: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” These keep getting closer to home, don’t they? He could have talked about a life spent going to church regularly and sharing Christian memes on social media and talking about God in public and always being asked to pray at public events and so on and so forth, but also a life that was secretly marked by impatience and greed and addiction and judgmentalism and pride and without a meaningful relationship with Jesus.
One last woe: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors’ sins!” Perhaps today Jesus could have said something like, “Woe to you who constantly pine for the ‘good ‘ole days,’ and who live with one eye constantly pointed toward the past. You forget the past was as broken as the present, and even that you participated in some of that brokenness. Meanwhile, instead of Gospel hope, you offer nothing but meaningless condemnation of the present.”
This is tough stuff, isn’t it? But before you go cheering Jesus on for sticking it to the religious elite of Jerusalem, and before you go bemoaning all the ways modern believers might fall within the lines of Jesus’ unnerving condemnations here, this kind of hypocrisy has always been inherent to every religion that has ever existed in the whole of human history. This is because we’re broken. It’s because we want the benefits of religion without paying the price those benefits demand of us. It’s because we want to justify ourselves. We need what the religion provides—the purpose, the hope, the explanation for why things are the way they are—and we’re willing to keep a few inconvenient rules in order to do that, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to totally give up our illusions of control over our lives, and so we find or make up loopholes that allow us to play the religion’s game while yet maintaining charge of our own lives. The result is and has always been, hypocrisy.
We hate hypocrisy because it’s a lie and we hate lies…at least the lies of other people. Jesus hates it because it’s unloving. It creates a fantasy world disconnected from the Gospel and dupes people into living in it instead of the real world. It’s an attempt to hide ourselves from God’s sovereignty; to give lip service to who He is without actually embracing His identity with our lives. If you’ll think back to our conversation about faith a couple of weeks ago, hypocrisy is actually the antithesis of faith, because instead of trusting in God’s character and living the way He has commanded, it is an attempt to grab hold of the things God has promised the faithful while placing no trust in His character and living as we please instead. Hypocrisy, no matter the religion to which it is connected, unfailingly proclaims that religion to be a meaningless sham to anyone who hasn’t already signed up for it. The reason for this is simple: If you don’t really have to keep the rules, then you aren’t really going to get the rewards. And if you aren’t really going to get the rewards, then why bother? Hypocrisy is fundamentally about religion for religion’s sake and not anything higher than that. If you are really committed to the faith you profess to have, your life is going to show that. Or, to put that a bit more memorably: If your faith is more than talk, your words will match your walk.
That’s all the challenge, though, where’s the good news? The good news is here: Most religions invite hypocrisy because their rules are numerous and complex and arbitrary. They promise rich rewards, but have this labyrinthine process to claim them that doesn’t make any sense at all. So we cheat. And, the Christian religion has occasionally played right into that trap. But a relationship with Jesus is fundamentally different from that. The rewards are still rich, but there’s no complex process. There’s really not much of any kind of process at all. There’s only this: Confess and believe. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. That’s it. No need for any loopholes there. And as far as the rules to stay in bounds go, there’s only one: Love one another. What could be simpler than that? What people who are rightly charged with hypocrisy are really guilty of is not understanding that salvation comes from a relationship with Jesus. Somewhere inside they still think it comes by rulekeeping which all but demands hypocrisy because we’re terrible at keeping rules. That’s why Jesus made it so simple. If your faith is more than talk, your words will match your walk.
The world hates hypocrisy and Jesus agrees. Thankfully, in His kingdom, there’s no need for it. All you have to do to get there is to trust in Him, something you demonstrate by doing what He said. And, thankfully, what He said is simple: Love one another. If your faith is more than talk, your words will match your walk. When the world sees us loving one another (and including them in our list of one anothers), it sees something different. Let us show the world something different. Let’s show them a faith that not only can be kept, but is worth keeping in the first place. We don’t have to put on a show for this one because the truth is better than any show we could produce. Make your words match your walk, and show that your faith is more than talk. There’s a world around us waiting to see something that’s really real and we can show it to them. If our faith is more than talk, our words will match our walk. Let’s get to it.