Hypocrisy, or Jesus’ Thoughts on Avoiding Becoming a Child of Hell


[The Traps, by my genius friend Laura Kranz]

I’m feeling it tonight.  This is either going to be the best thing I’ve ever written or completely unintelligible…or I’ll give up and watch one of my shows.  If you’re reading this, it wasn’t option three.

Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy.  

Before I go on, I want to make clear that I do not know Jesus as an angry, scolding, critical person/teacher/savior/deity.*  In fact, my experience is quite the opposite.  

Among the many things that I love about Jesus in the Gospels was his focus on building people up.  He confronted certain people a fair amount, sure, but if you look at his interactions, you see how frequently and consistently he encouraged, empowered, and affirmed people.  If that description makes you uncomfortable, I will respectfully suggest here that you may have gotten too strong a dose of a theology that emphasizes what miserable wretches we are and always will be.  

Jesus told a woman with a nightmare hemorrhaging condition that had left her impoverished and an outcast that her faith had saved her!  Had Jesus’ power healed her?  Of course.  Was she going to manage that without Jesus’ power?  No, obviously not.  Her faith was in Jesus, both his power (ability to heal) and love (willingness to heal)–although if you know the story, you know she had a lot more confidence in his power.  She was hoping he wouldn’t notice that she needed his help.

Not only did he notice, he stopped the emergency rush to heal the Jewish official’s dying daughter so he could speak with her.  Affirm her.  Listen to her.  Look her in the eye and restore her to the society that had (ignorantly, callously) cast her out.  

That’s one of my favorite stories in the Gospels because it so powerfully captures Jesus’ treatment of people: not only do I long to heal you, I’m not going to let you get away with less than what you need.  Had she touched his cloak, been healed, and snuck away, she would have stopped bleeding but missed out on the emotional and spiritual restoration Jesus desired for her.**  How does it impact you when someone who is so powerful that a mere touch of his clothing can heal you says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  

When I say Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy, I mean a few things.  First, it may have been the characteristic he most objected to in people.  Arguably, Jesus considered hypocrisy the most dangerous spiritual condition.  

I’ve said before that Jesus gave such dire warnings about the dangers of wealth and greed that you can’t find anything else in the Gospels he describes this way.  “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Cannot.  He doesn’t say, ‘That’ll prove difficult,” or “heads up, you could have troubles pulling that off.”  He says it’s impossible.  Obviously, we then have to figure out what “serving” wealth might mean, if we’re taking Jesus at all seriously.  

Similarly, Jesus calls out hypocrisy with a fervor, directness, and consistency we see with virtually nothing else he addresses.  Why?  I believe he knows and is telling us it represents the gravest danger to our souls.  I won’t make an exhaustive inventory of hypocrisy Jesus confronts in the Gospels, especially because some interactions may have hypocrisy as one element–for example, when Jesus tells his disciples he will be betrayed, beaten, and killed, and Peter rebukes him, yet Peter had just identified Jesus as “messiah” (or “Christ”)–and this would become a book-length blog post.  If you read through the Gospels just looking for when Jesus initiates confrontations, it is striking how often hypocrisy figures in.  

Keep in mind, too, that Jesus chooses to target hypocrisy among a whole bunch of what we would term “bad behaviors.”  I mean, starting with “He was perfect and lived a sinless life,” he would have been acutely aware of the negative stuff going on around him.  He hung out with people who were labeled as “sinners” in his culture, and they loved him!  Loved having him at their parties, loved hearing what he had to say.  

Jesus wasn’t a scold.  He didn’t nitpick.  He didn’t jump at every opportunity to call out fault.  He walked around most of the time with a bunch of followers who screwed up a lot and failed to grasp and/or apply his teachings, over and over–“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us”–sometimes nastily–“Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven on them?”  He spoke the truth and corrected, but even with people you know were doing hurtful stuff to themselves and others,*** Jesus led with love and grace and kindness.  Paul wrote, “It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance” and I believe this describes Jesus’ interactions with people.  

This builds to my point: Jesus treated hypocrisy differently.  He jumped on it.  He would not abide it.  When we hear Jesus say that people are calling him a drunkard and a glutton, we can infer it is because he was spending time with drunkards and gluttons.  I’m not saying drunkenness and gluttony are fine, but the Gospels make no mention of Jesus confronting drunks or gluttons.  Again, to be clear, I’m not making some argument from silence that Jesus approved of binge drinking, alcoholism, or feasting while others starve.  I’m saying that however bad we might consider other things, Jesus made communicated unmistakably that hypocrisy is vile, especially when practiced by leaders.  

The religious leaders of Israel during Jesus’ lifetime were also the civic and political leaders, because Israel was a religious state (as well as a Roman-occupied state) and the competing religious sects (e.g. Pharisees and Sadducees) got along approximately as well as our current political parties do.  There were inner circles of power, which we see during Jesus’ trial.**** Jesus calls the leaders hypocrites.  He says this many times.  He leaves no doubt who he means or what he thinks of their actions.  

If you’ve never read Matthew 23 and/or you want to know how to dismantle someone verbally, take a look.  When people object to the image of “Jesus meek and mild,” they usually bring up the whole chasing the vendors out of the Temple with a whip adventure.  They have a point.v*  But for my non-mastering money, I’ll take Matthew 23.  Tough love looks like this.  I don’t believe Jesus says these things because he hates the scribes and Pharisees.  I am absolutely convinced he loved them and this was their chance for redemption.  As unlikely as it seems, they could have received this as conviction and repented.  It’s possible some of them did.  We know that at least two of their group did not go along with the position against Jesus (wow, that’s a euphemistic way to say, “Their burning desire to kill him in the bloodiest way possible.”).  

Hypocrisy looks like this:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

They don’t do what they say; they don’t do what they say to do.  They tell you to do one thing but they do something else.  Hypocrisy.  

Jesus calls them hypocrites.  Jesus isn’t one for name-calling.  He does like to rename people, but that’s a different deal.  

They do all their deeds to be seen by others…

Acting with false motives also describes hypocrisy, perhaps especially when one claims pure, “religious,” or selfless motives.  A bank robber is a thief, a man who convinces you to invest and walks away with your money is a swindler, but a televangelist who gets rich in the name of God?  That’s a hypocrite. The bank robber doesn’t claim to be anything else.  But the “righteous” preacher with a different motive?  

Jesus said the Pharisees do their deeds, which are intended to be acts that express worship to God, in order to be seen by others.  They look pious so others will admire them–which means they are not being pious, but the opposite.  What’s the opposite of pious?  Not to be circular, but it might be “hypocritical.” v**

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. Woe 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.

 If you have a belief in God and God tells you, “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,” it may not get much worse than that. 

 If you are a religious leader and you make your converts twice as much a child of hell as yourself, then you are doing the antithesis of your position’s purpose.
Jesus is not simply saying, “Misleading people is bad,” though it is. Jesus tells them, “You have violated your role, the very essence of why this role exists.”  
I was once mentoring a young woman who told me about a horrible interaction she had with her father.  He was disappointed in her.  They were arguing. 
He asked, “So what do you want from me?”  
She said, “I just want you to tell me you love me, Dad.”
And he looked her in they eye and said, “I can’t do that.”  
As she was reciting this story, visibly in pain, I had to break in and tell her, “He violated what it is to be a father.”  
God’s wisdom or my own opinion–and looking full in the face all my own failures as a father–I’ll stand by that assessment.  
The scribes and Pharisees were teaching the same hypocrisy they were practicing.  They were mentoring young men into the evil they were practicing.  Jesus was pissed.  More on that in a moment.
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. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Remember, these are the same folks who watched Jesus heal a man with a palsied hand and immediately discussed how they could crush him.  They tried to get a man born blind whose eyes Jesus had healed to confirm their opinion that Jesus was evil.  Being full of hypocrisy equals being full of death and all kinds of filth.

Jesus declares seven “woes,” most beginning with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  I’ve described only a few.  The rest aren’t nicer.  I’m convinced Jesus felt anger as he spoke these.  Why?  1)They have damaged people Jesus loved (and for whom he would soon die), 2)He calls them “Snakes!  Brood of  vipers!”  3)He calls them “blind” five different times, including “How blind you are!”; “Blind fools!”; and “blind guides” twice.  Maybe he said all this gently and tenderly, but if so, I cannot read tone at all and God will need to correct me.  Since I’m starting with the presupposition that Jesus never sinned, that means righteous anger is possible…at least for Jesus.  I’m  not good at it.  

I am frightened that being called on one’s hypocrisy no longer seems to hold much power.  I believe there was until recently, a sense that one needed to disprove this accusation.  Now, I see very little shame over having hypocrisy fully exposed.  Of course, redirecting fault has a long and glorious history (“It was the woman’s fault,” said the first man), and we’re all pretty talented spin doctors, explaining how what appears to be our hypocrisy is actually not, due to mitigating factors or misunderstanding.  

But I want to return to the main point:  Jesus doesn’t like hypocrisy. 

If people in our time or culture have lost their shame over being hypocrites, they are wrong.  And if I’m right that this is happening, it is a scary trend.  

If we take Jesus seriously–I mean, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” level seriously–then hypocrisy in ourselves, in our church leadership (which might be the same thing, *cough, cough*), and in our political leadership should do more than cause us to raise an eyebrow.

 In terms of Gospel urgency, hindering little children from coming to Jesus, stepping over starving people at our gate while dogs lick their sores, and ignoring hypocrisy should send that bolt of touched-the-loose-wire electricity down our spines.  Cold sweat and soul searching. The guy who writes a blog entitled “Grace Is Greater” which I believe with every bit of my heart–about the grace, not always my own blog–I’m saying some things are horribly dangerous to us.  Hypocrisy is one.  Jesus says so.  

It would be utmost foolishness to finish this without addressing my own hypocrisy.  So I will now

list all the ways I’m a hypocrite

invite you to list all the ways I’m a hypocrite

do some earnest soul searching on the personal retreat I’m going to take in a few days.  

But I will end with this:  our commitment to grace and the transparency that grace allows–I don’t have to pretend to be anything more than the trainwreck I sometimes am because, even so, God actually is quite fond of me–frees us from the temptation to choose hypocrisy.  That doesn’t take us all the way off the hook, but it helps a lot.  Now we have to ask God to show us hypocrisy to which we’re blind.  A scary prayer, certainly, but I’m choosing it over being filled with bones of the dead and every kind of filth.  That’s an easy choice, particularly when I remember that God is merciful.  So if you do need to tell me that I’m hypocritical, I’ll do my best to hear that as God’s kindness and mercy to me.  

I still may not thank you right away.  




*I believe Jesus was God incarnate in human form, and my list of what Jesus is goes a lot longer than these four.  I know not 6everyone believes this.  

**I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to bail with the minimum healing because I’m afraid it will hurt and/or be humiliating, but that’s a different post.  

*** One definition of sin is “that which damages us.”  God objects to sin not because he is controlling or makes arbitrary rules, but because he loves us and does not want to see us damage ourselves.  I know that’s not everyone’s definition, but I believe it is biblical and reflects God’s character.  Any theology that warps God’s character for the sake of its own consistency is…how do I say this?  Wrong.  

****For example, Jesus was first sent to Annas, the high priest, before he was sent to Caiaphas, the high priest.  There couldn’t be two.  Annas was the former high priest, was succeeded by five of his sons as high priest, and was the father-in-law of Caiaphas.  There were some power struggles here.

v* It’s also cool to note that, in Matthew, the next sentence immediately after Jesus chases those guys out of the Temple and explains why is “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

v** It is striking that “pious” now has as it’s first definition “marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship” but its second is “marked by conspicuous religiosity <a hypocrite—a thing all pious words and uncharitable deeds — Charles Reade>   https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pious

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