Updated: Dec 20, 2022
That’s is deal with hypocrisy: there is a fundamental mismatch between behavior and values. The Greek word hypocrite was technical term for a stage actor—someone performing under a mask. Likewise, a hypocrite according to Jesus was someone who put on a public face of religiosity, but didn’t act according to spiritual values,
and then had the nerve to criticize others for their lack of follow through.
Jesus had no patience for religious hypocrisy, because it twisted what was a gift into a weapon. Perhaps you know this already, but one of the reasons people say they don’t want to join a church is that “churches are full of hypocrites.”
I remember a clever older colleague replying, “Always room for one more!”
I liked the way this colleague owned our shared human struggle with hypocrisy,
And yet I want to take seriously how we may appear to secular people. We are the face of Christ to the world, after all. People outside our churches have a limited view, of course—they don’t necessarily know what goes on inside our communities.
But consider what they DO see: Churches that espouse love to neighbor but seem more concerned for the survival of their institutions rather than the needs of the people in the town and city around them. Churches that claim grace but judge others because of their lifestyle or the way they look. Churches that preach holy living, but protect ministers who abused their power.
Now you might say, that’s not OUR church; OUR church is different. But a secular person who doesn’t go to any church sees us all the same. And sometimes, if we are honest with ourselves, we can see that we DO at times resemble the church preoccupied with staffing, budgets, and buildings. We DO sometimes have less than a graceful attitude toward someone outside the norm. We Do sometimes excuse hurtful behavior in the name of being Christian rather than holding someone accountable.
Hypocrisy is a common human vice—garden variety! We all have a measure of it.
It’s much easier to see it in others than to admit in yourself. But the virtue that combats it— the gift of the Spirit that overcomes it—is humility. That is, seeing yourself rightly, honestly, without self deception or self deprecation. Seeing yourself as a forgiven sinner, loved by God, just like everyone else.
One of the people in whom I saw humility at work was Matt. It all started on Monday morning when I came to the church I served in Newington, and the place smelled of skunk. Sure enough, a family of skunks had made their home in the window well outside the fellowship hall. Fortunately for me, an AA group met Monday night, and they suggested I call their friend, Matt. Matt came and used a telescopic pole to nudge the skunks into bucket and hauled them out. I guess the place smelled like home, though, because before property had a chance to cover the window well, the skunks were back again. So I got on the phone and called Matt a second time. It felt like a big favor to ask. After all, I had just met the guy. And I was asking him to come back and do it all over again. But Matt was gracious. I’ll never forget what he said:
“You know, I am a lot like that skunk. I have fallen into so many holes in my life;
But God reached into the pit and my own stink and pulled me out. So I am happy to help these little guys.”
To me, Matt displayed true humility. He is one of many of the evolved souls I have met over the years who are members of AA or other 12 Step recovery groups.
It would be so easy to go to a meeting and say to yourself, “I’m not like these messed up people.” But every meeting begins with, “Hi I’m Matt, I’m an alcoholic,” and recognizing your common need and vulnerability is a crucial step toward healing.
When you recognize that you are indeed in the same boat with all these other “messed up people,” there is little room for judgment or hypocrisy, and a lot more room for compassion and generosity of spirit.
To me, that’s what Jesus was going for. It is what we are going for, too. And doing it requires some effort on our part. It requires us to see our church not as a place for perfect people, but for people who are in recovery a hospital for sinners rather than a museum for saints. It requires us to enter more fully into what is available here at church: allowing the scriptures to challenge us and unmask our hypocrisy and self righteousness and opening ourselves the mystery of God’s healing grace in the sacraments.
We need to pay attention carefully to our practice of confession, making sure that we aren’t just going through the motions, letting that be a time when we make a ‘fearless moral inventory of our lives,’ say it out loud, and then let God’s words of forgiveness wash over us. It is a weekly opportunity for honesty and receiving God’s love.
It is a time to build the humble spirit that counteracts hypocrisy.
My conviction is that if we do that here, we have a greater shot at living out humility and non-judgment and compassion in our daily lives. We have a better shot at helping people see who we as the Church really are. And we are a more accurate vision of the loving face of Jesus.