The lion barked. That’s how the mother and son visiting The People’s Park of Luohe in the Chinese province Henan learned that what was labeled an “African lion” was in fact a Tibetan mastiff, a dog. The lions, it seems, have been sent to another zoo for breeding. Without changing the sign by the cage, one of the caretakers at the zoo brought in his family pet to try to fool visitors. And it’s not the first instance of animal substitution. “There also have been recent reports of Chinese zoo officials painting dogs black and white to make them look like pandas.” Now, that’s just silly, isn’t it? Trying to be something or someone you’re not.
Are you what you’re advertised to be? Or are you a hypocrite?
It’s a heavy word, “hypocrite.” A hard word. A harsh word. A word we don’t like hearing come from Jesus’ mouth. A word I successfully avoided for over a decade. Then someone submitted this passage for this summer sermon series. So, here we are…trying to make sense of a loving savior who calls people hypocrites. What is up with this harsh-sounding Jesus? And, more to the point, what does it have to do with us?
A quick look at the context of this passage from Matthew will give us some insight into this hypocrite business. The first thing to note: it’s unlikely that scribes and Pharisees actually were present when Jesus called them “Hypocrites!” In Mt. 23:1, it tells us that Jesus was speaking “to the crowds and to his disciples,” not to the scribes and Pharisees. So, if you’ve got an image in your mind of Jesus blasting a group of religious leaders, red-faced, spittle flying—no worries. You can let that image go; that’s not what’s going on here. It’s more like Jesus set up an empty chair, and preached as if a hypocritical Pharisee were sitting in it.
So, what’s a hypocrite? The word “hypocrite” derives from the Greek word hypokrisis which refers to “an inconsistency between one’s faith and one’s actions, whether one is aware of it or not” (NIB, 435). So, in calling the religious leaders hypocrites, Jesus was drawing attention to inconsistency between their faith and their actions. As he says of the religious leaders in 23:3: “They do not practice what they preach.”
Which is all well and good….but if Jesus is concerned about the inconsistent faith lives of the religious teachers, why doesn’t he make his case with them instead of taking it to the crowds and his disciples?
Let’s think about that for a minute. Who were the crowds and the disciples? They were the people under the spiritual care of the religious leaders, right? So, if you’re a regular schmo, trying your best to be faithful, who are you going to listen to? The religious authorities, right? But if the religious authorities are on the wrong track, if the religious authorities aren’t living their faith consistently, what’s going to happen to your faith and the faith of all your fellow schmoes? Because you don’t know any better, you’re going to join them on the wrong track.
Basically, what Jesus is doing here is giving the people permission to question authority. Just because a religious teacher says something doesn’t make it gospel. None of us should take what religious authorities say at face value (says this community’s religious authority… Oh, man! Is that hypocritical?). The true test of a person’s authenticity is to see how closely aligned are their beliefs and their actions. A true disciple is one who practices what she or he preaches. Someone who doesn’t practice what she or he preaches? You got it: a hypocrite.
So, are you a hypocrite? Just in case you’re wondering, the answer is yes. Yes, you are a hypocrite. We all are. If all our actions aren’t consistent with our faith, if our lives aren’t in line with our values, if we don’t practice what we preach, then, yes, we are hypocrites.
But just because we’re hypocrites doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. I confess that I haven’t enjoyed thinking about hypocrisy the past couple of weeks. But thinking about it has led to some helpful insights…like this one: when we think about hypocrisy as an either-or thing—either you are a hypocrite or you’re not—it’s easy to feel helpless. “Oh, geez,” we might say. “I don’t live what I believe. I believe in eating healthy, but I eat fast food. I believe in recycling, but it’s so much easier to toss things in the trash. I believe in tithing, but I don’t do it. I don’t believe in mindless consumerism, but I shop every chance I get. I believe God loves everyone, but does that mean I have to, too?” Thinking about hypocrisy in black-and-white terms was very disempowering. Why try to change if I’m never going to measure up to my ideals, right?
So, I stopped. I stopped thinking about hypocrisy in black-and-white terms and started thinking about it as more of a continuum…like, “I used to be a hypocrite in 95% of my life. Now, I’m a hypocrite in only 93%. Yay, me!”
Then I read a book called No Impact Man. No Impact Man chronicles the year writer Colin Beaven, his wife and toddler daughter tried to live in Manhattan in such a way that they made zero impact on the environment. No trash, no electricity, no food that traveled more than 250 miles to their table, no use of fossil fuels (except for two train trips to see family), no use of elevators (except for his wife, who worked on the 43rd floor in a New York sky scraper). No toilet paper. It was an extreme way to live.
When Colin proposed the “no impact” idea to his agent, the agent asked why he’d want to do such a crazy thing. Colin said: “I want my work to align with my values.” He’d gotten so overwhelmed by the problem of climate change, he’d become paralyzed. He wasn’t doing much of anything to care for the earth. But he’d reached the point where he was tired of not living his values. So, he tried.
At the end of the year, they turned the electricity back on and, I suspect, went and bought some toilet paper… but a lot of things in his family’s life changed for the better—and for good– because of the experiment. Many more of Colin’s actions now are aligned with his values.
Here’s the thing. If we want to live authentic Christian lives—lives with any kind of authenticity—we have to be honest with ourselves about the places we fall short of our best aims. If we hope to align our actions and our values, we must take a hard look at the gap (or chasm) between how we hope to live and how we actually live. If we can look honestly at our hypocrisy, there is hope that it can be healed. In fact, the only hope of healing our hypocrisy—and living lives of deeper authenticity— is to look at it honestly. Hear the story of how one hypocrite got healed.
Lord George Hell lived hard—he gambled, drank, ran around with women. One night, he attends a show with his, um, “girlfriend,” La Gambogi. When a young and innocent dancer named Jenny performs, Cupid fires his arrow into Lord George’s breast. He is smitten.
Immediately, “Lord George proposes marriage to Jenny, but she says she will only marry a man with the face of a saint. Confused, Lord George spends the night wandering the streets, heartbroken. In the morning, he stumbles upon a mask- maker’s shop. He purchases a saint’s face mask. La Gambogi, who sees him leave the shop with his new false face, confronts him, but he pretends not to know her and retreats, intending to attend Jenny’s performance that night. However, while viewing his new look in the reflection of a brook, Lord George sees Jenny, leaps across the brook and proposes marriage. She accepts.
“Starting with signing the marriage register as “George Heaven,” Lord George makes a total moral conversion by returning ill-gotten wealth to gamblers he had cheated, donating excess money to charities. He then buys a woodman’s cottage to live a quiet, modest existence. The newlyweds lead a simple, happy life…Lord George always careful to wear his saintly mask.
As the couple celebrates their one month anniversary, who should drop by but La Gambogi. She “refuses to leave until she is granted one last look at Lord George’s true face. A scuffle ensues. In the heat of the struggle, La Gambogi tears off Lord George’s mask. Although he fears that his true love is lost—because Jenny will see who he really is–it turns out that his face has assumed the contours of the mask.” (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
Though he began his marriage as a hypocrite, by slowly taking actions that aligned with his new values, Lord George grew into the person he wanted to be. By facing (literally!) the gap between how he was living and how he wanted to live, his hypocrisy was healed and he was able to live his life with integrity and without fear of being found out.
Are we hypocrites? Oh, yeah. Is there hope? Oh, yeah. When can we begin healing our hypocrisy? As soon as we sing this next song…
The Hypocrite Song, by eLi http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npcJPd_4Dc8
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.* 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell* as yourselves.
16 ‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, “Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.” 19How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.
23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,* so that the outside also may become clean.
27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?* 34Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.