2 September 2018


[RCL]: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10;

James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites! Have you ever heard that, or even said that? I hear it often. It usually comes from people who are anxious to justify ignorance about what God and Jesus and Church are really, and they do it by having a go at people who go to church and are committed there.

However, when you take a first glance, the accusation of hypocrisy seems to be a reasonably justified attack. After all, Jesus himself, is very hard on hypocrites, in fact, he is harder on them than he is on anybody else.

There is that great example in the Gospel reading today, in which we heard that Jesus once again really gives it to the Pharisees and scribes, the official religious leaders of the day.

So, if the church really is full of hypocrites, we have a problem. Maybe we should fire a lot of churchgoers, or maybe we should just place ourselves into administration, or something?

But before we do that, let’s examine what Jesus was talking about when he taught about hypocrites. It is a word that is surprisingly hard to get a grip on, and so we need to spend a little extra time on it. What we usually mean when we use the word HYPOCRITE is most likely not what Jesus meant when he used it.

So let’s start with our modern understanding. A good dictionary will tell us that hypocrites are people who are playing a part, people who deliberately pretend to have beliefs and virtues that they, in fact, do not have at all, and which the hypocrites both know they don’t have and don’t particularly want to have.

Hypocrites in this sense are people who are faking it and who know they are faking it. The point is deception. (In fact, the word comes from an ancient Greek word that means one who is acting a part in a play.)

Hypocrisy in this sense is actually vicious because it’s a misuse of Christian faith and it mocks God and his Church. I have no doubt this kind of behaviour grieves the Lord. So the most simple take away here is: don’t do it, and hit it on the head quickly when you realise you are doing it. But two other things need to be said about this sense of hypocrisy.


  • Firstly, then, churches are not jam-packed full of hypocrites, and to believe that is to believe fake news

It just isn’t true. Most church people, indeed virtually all the church people I know, believe what they say they believe, or at a minimum, they want to believe it, or they are trying to believe it, or they wish they could believe it. And, truth be told, that’s as good at it gets.

In the same way, most church people I know are living by their best take on the moral precepts of our faith, or they are trying to, or they want to, or they know deeply both the struggle that comes with contending with God and the weight of judgment that brings.

Nobody gets it right all the time; everybody gets it wrong more often than necessary; anybody and everybody can do better. But outright, deliberate faking the whole business to seem good while planning to be bad — this does happen, but it is rare, and I think we ought to realise this, and say that, and celebrate the fact that most church people are not fake good news. The church is not full of that sort of hypocrite. The church is full of sinners of course — but that’s another matter entirely — and that’s as it should be.

Now, in the light of all that, I’m not sure whether or not it’s good news that, when Jesus condemned hypocrites and hypocrisy, he was not talking about this, but about something else. Let me explain.

You see, the notion of acting a part was an ancient Greek thing, and there are really no Hebrew or Aramaic parallels to this idea of hypocrisy. So, we don’t know for certain what Aramaic word Jesus used that the Gospel writers translated as the Greek word hypocrite. One way I know to get at what Jesus was probably talking about is by way of an old story from Buddhism.

Once upon a time, the great Zen master Sasha was standing with a friend at the top of a tall tower. His friend looked down the road and saw a line of saffron-robed monks walking toward them.

“Look,” his friend said to Sasha, “holy men.”

“Those are holy men,” Sasha said, “and I can prove it to you.” So, they waited in silence until the monks were walking directly below the tower.

Then Sasha leaned over the tower’s rail and called down, “Hey, holy men.” The monks all looked up—and Sasha turned to his friend and said, “See?”

Those monks were exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about hypocrites. So were the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus does not attack the Pharisees and scribes for pretending to be good when they were really evil. The vast majority of them were not evil.

Instead, Jesus castigates them because their self-righteous convictions about their own goodness had built a smug wall around them, isolated them from the rest of the community, and made them deaf to any further word from God.

The Pharisees kept the law and keeping the law — the moral law and the religious law — is a good thing. We should do that. But to believe and act like you are righteous and holy in the sight of God because you keep the law — is absolutely deadly, and it is the heart of what Jesus means by hypocrisy.

To cultivate within yourself moral virtues and behaviour which not everyone around you cultivates is, again, a good thing. Indeed, it’s a distinctive mark of the Christian life. But to believe and to act like your own righteousness in the sight of God is yours because you are more virtuous than most people you know — or more virtuous than some other people, or a specific other people — this is what Jesus insisted was far more evil than the particulars of any individual sinner. That’s tough love from Jesus, is it not?

There is only one place to look if we want to find out how good we are, or how righteous we are — only one place. That place is God — God’s absolute goodness, God’s absolute justice, God’s absolute demands, and, finally, God’s absolute love and mercy.

If we look to ourselves for our righteousness, if we look to the things we have done, or the rules we have kept or the law we obey — or if we look to the failings of others (and say, “at least I’m not like them”) — if we do that, if we try to find in ourselves, or in others, the answer to how good we are or how righteous we are — if we do that, then we are who Jesus is talking about when he talks about hypocrites.

Now let me be totally clear here: it’s a good and important thing to obey the way the Bible teaches us to live, and that we live the life we are called by the Lord to live. None of this talk of hypocrisy excuses moral or religious failing, nor does it mean that the way we behave doesn’t matter. The way we behave matters a lot for many reasons. For example, I will wager it has been a while since you read the book of Deuteronomy, but this Old Testament book talks about how God’s people are to live in such a way that the world around them can look at them and be drawn to God. And the apostle Paul wrote often about how every speck of virtue we can nurture is absolutely essential if we are to live our calling.

  • And then secondly, whilst Jesus condemns the hypocrites, he is not talking about evil people who pretend.

He is talking about well-behaved people who trust in themselves, who consider themselves finished products, and so cannot see or hear either themselves or God very well.

I don’t think the church is particularly full of this sort of hypocrite, either; but we’re far from immune. And Jesus thought it was incredibly important, so we have to pay especially close attention and keep alert. I am an unfinished painting on God’s canvas … and so are you. Let me close by returning to Sasha, the Zen master, and those monks.

Sasha was in the tower and those monks were walking by. “Look,” his friend said to Sasha, “holy men.”

“Those are holy men,” Sasha said, “and I can prove it to you.” So, they waited in silence until the monks were walking directly below the tower.

Then Sasha leaned over the tower’s rail and called down, “Hey, holy men.” The monks all looked up—and Sasha turned to his friend and said, “See?”

And remember that our trust, and our hope, and our confidence, can be found in only one place — it is never in ourselves—it is always in the love and the mercy of God.