We are frustrated with the hypocrisy of the politician who sets policies but does not live by them or the business leader who pushes for environmental restrictions while flying a private jet. But it is religious hypocrisy that is most damaging, because while God cares about politics and business, He ultimately created people for Himself and religious hypocrisy confuses people about God.
Scholars believe Jesus was the first teacher to take the word “hypocrite” and apply it to regular life. The word “hypocrite” initially was about “acting” or “pretending for a show.” Jesus was deeply frustrated with the religious leaders’ hypocrisy and pronounced famous “Woes” upon them (Matthew 23). Jesus never said “Woe to you” to “the sinners and tax collectors” whose lives were falling apart—only to those who wore a mask. Jesus pronounced woes not on the sinner who knows he needs grace but on the pretender who thinks he does not need grace. Jesus did not rebuke the one struggling but the imposter who acts like he has no struggles.
Those angered by religious hypocrisy find Jesus standing next to them, angered alongside them. And yet not everyone who is called a hypocrite is actually a hypocrite. When Jesus confronted the hypocrites in His day, He made clear what it was that made them hypocrites:
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. 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 [prayer boxes on their arms] and lengthen their tassels. 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. (Matthew 23:1-7)
They (1) don’t practice what they teach, (2) tie heavy loads of rules on you that they don’t lift themselves, and (3) they do everything to be seen.
Yes, there are hypocrites. But no, not everyone who is called a hypocrite is a hypocrite. Someone growing in Christlikeness, struggling and stumbling but still pressing forward, is not a hypocrite. Immaturity and inconsistency are not the same thing as hypocrisy. Sometimes people will say, “Why would I go to that church? I am better than a lot of people who are at that church!” C.S. Lewis essentially said, “If you think some of those Christians are bad, you don’t know how bad they would have been without Christ.” Christians don’t insist we are good. By His grace, we have been declared pure and we will spend all our lives catching up to what God has said of us.
After confronting the religious leaders and defining hypocrisy for the crowd, Jesus speaks to those damaged by the religious leaders:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ because you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven. You are not to be called instructors either, because you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:8-12)
Jesus was sensitive to those hurt by the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, and yet Jesus lovingly warned them about the hypocrisy becoming an excuse to miss Him. He invites us, invites you, to look to God as your Father and Teacher, to let God be the One who provides for you, who cares for you, who sustains you, and who guides you. Humble yourself before Him and let Him be your Father. Those pretending to be His followers, and even His authentic but imperfect followers, will fail you.