“Why Being a Hypocrite is not so Bad”
September 25, 2005
Dr. Jimmy R. Watson; St. Mark
People are never exactly who they claim to be, are they? There is the story of the man who came down from the Carolina mountains one day. He was all dressed up and carrying his Bible. A friend saw him and asked, “Elias, what’s happening? Where are you going all dressed up like that?” Elias said, “I’ve been hearing about New Orleans. I hear that there is a lot of free-runnin’ liquor and a lot of gamblin’ and a lot of real good, naughty shows.” The friend looked him over and said, “But Elias, why are you carrying your Bible under your arm?” Elias answered, “Well, if it’s as good as they say it is, I might stay over until Sunday.”
Webster’s defines a hypocrite as “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, esp. a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.” A simple definition comes from Lonnie Lee Best, who said a hypocrite is “a person whose actions contradict their stated or internal beliefs.” Un-churched people often use the excuse of “too many hypocrites in the church” to justify not going to church. So the church is full of hypocrites? No kidding? Of course the church is full of hypocrites! The church is full of human beings.
The un-churched are not the only ones who enjoy criticizing hypocrites. Over the centuries, preachers and poets alike have made a really good living condemning it. The 17th century English poet, John Milton, wrote, “For neither man nor angel can discern Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone.” Hypocrisy is universally condemned. All of the great religions in the world have taken a stab at it. As one writer said, “Wherever people subscribe to a religion or any doctrine of moral excellence, there may arise the sin of hypocrisy.”
Still, Christianity seems to rise head and shoulders above all other religions when it comes to condemning hypocrisy. A lot of this comes from the Gospel of Matthew which contains a very strong anti-hypocrisy theme. Examples include:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (6:1-4) (This passage reminds me of a scene from the 1957 movie, Sweet Smell of Success. Burt Lancaster’s character, J. J. Hunsecker, says, “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”)
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (7:21)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (23:27-28)
Matthew’s Jesus has a real problem with hypocrisy. In fact, Jesus seems to let everyone off the hook, so to speak, except religious hypocrites. There is also our text for today from Matthew 21. In this story the chief priests and the elders of the people (the religious elite) question Jesus about his “authority” to teach and heal people. Jesus responds by uncovering their blatant hypocrisy. He says he will answer their question only if they can tell him whether John’s practice of baptism was of divine or human origin. Jesus puts them in a quandary. They can’t say it was of divine origin because then they would have to explain why they were not John’s followers. And they can’t say it was merely of human origin, because then a lot of people, who liked John the Baptist, would get very angry.
And like good religious leaders, they didn’t want to make anyone mad! So they give a politically savvy, unoffending answer: “We do not know.” Of course, they were lying. They did not consider John’s ministry of baptism to be of God. Because they wouldn’t answer this question, Jesus refuses to answer the question about the origin of his authority as well, but he does tell a story that cuts to the heart of their hypocrisy. In this parable a father tells his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. The first son says he will not, but he eventually does. The second son says he will, but he never does.
Jesus goes on to suggest that those who are condemned as “sinners,” represented by the tax collectors and prostitutes (the worst of the bunch) are like the first son. They make no claims about their own righteousness, but they are the ones who respond best to John the Baptist’s message of baptism and repentance. The religious elite, on the other hand, are like the second son. They do make claims about their own righteousness, but they do not respond to John’s message of baptism and repentance. Like the second son in this parable, we preachers are particularly prone to hypocrisy just by standing in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. We are the “religious elite,” if you will. Even though church members (such as your selves) regularly commit “sins,” there is nothing more noticeable than the sins of a preacher.
Even before Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and the sex scandals of the Catholic priesthood, there was Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Elmer Gantry, a book that exposed blatant acts of hypocrisy among the clergy. Gantry was greedy, a womanizer, a boozer, and a rather violent man. Even though scores of church members are also greedy, womanizing, violent boozers, they are not standing in the pulpit each and every Sunday. But whether one is a member of the clergy or laity, hypocrisy is a problem for which we all ought to be aware. As Christians we are all excruciatingly prone to the charge of hypocrisy. Karl Rahner said, “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny him with their lifestyles is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable.”
Nevertheless, we can condemn hypocrisy all we want, but we still have to admit that it is the norm. Most people are hypocrites to one degree or another. There are three reasons why people are hypocrites:
- Most people are not 100% certain of their moral beliefs. This uncertainty will cause people to be hypocritical at times.
- Everyone has “carnal desires.” These are inherent human desires that often cause one to act on what the flesh desires, rather than what one believes to be the right action.
- Some people have set their moral “bar” too high. If one’s moral standards of right and wrong are higher than what is humanly possible, then their actions are obviously not always going to be consistent with their beliefs.
If these causes of hypocrisy never affect you, then you are truly a special being. You’re certainly not human! So the question is not whether you and I are hypocrites, but whether we are “honest” or “dishonest” hypocrites. That is, are we willing to admit when our actions do not match our beliefs about right and wrong? To use religious language, are we willing to confess and repent when our actions do not match our beliefs, or not? Honest hypocrites are willing to do so, but dishonest ones are not.
I saw a movie the other day that does a great job of showing the difference between an honest and a dishonest hypocrite. The new movie, Bad News Bears, is a remake of an earlier wildly successful movie, about a group of ragtag Little Leaguers who can’t do anything right until their new coach, played by Billy Bob Thornton, comes on the scene. Coach Butterman is an ex-big leaguer who wasn’t very successful at it, and who has since become a drunken womanizer. He has to be paid by one of the mothers to coach the Bears. His counterpart is the coach of the Yankees, the best team in the league. He is a “good, upright” man, highly respected in the community. As the movie progresses, however, and the Bears start winning games, both coaches become highly competitive, even to the point of abusing their players verbally and physically.
In many ways this movie is a re-telling of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21. The Bears coach is like the first son in the parable. In the beginning he is not very willing to help these kids become a good team—and he’s certainly not a good person at all—but by the end of the movie he is a heroic figure. He still has his personal flaws but he is willing to acknowledge his weaknesses and become a father figure to the kids. The coach of the Yankees, conversely, is like the second son in the parable. In the beginning he is the coach everyone looks up to, the one who is “committed” to his players and to the community. But by the end of the movie he becomes so abusive that his own son, the pitcher of the team, walks out on him during the championship game. He never admits his flaws and continues to be a “jerk” throughout the entire story.
Both men are hypocrites. No doubt about it. But one becomes an honest hypocrite while the other remains a dishonest hypocrite. Being a hypocrite is not so bad. It’s certainly part of the human condition. But let’s be honest about it, shall we?