Jesus and Hypocrisy


Gary Cleveland Myers, linked from

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my doctor’s waiting room. I loved to read, and remember fondly a couple of publications. One was a set of beautifully illustrated Bible story books. The other was the monthly magazine Highlights for Children.  Those of you who have read this magazine probably remember the comic strip “Goofus and Gallant,” about two brothers with contrasting behavior, intended to teach young readers about good ethics and proper etiquette.  For example, one strip concerns Mrs. Green’s lost purse. The left panel shows a greedy-looking Goofus handing the bag back with the caption, “My, you sure have a lot of nice things in your purse.” The right panel pictures Gallant gently setting the unopened bag on a chair, captioned, “Here’s your purse, Mrs. Green.”

The Goofus and Gallant comic strip is a modern example of a certain style of moral teaching we see employed by Jesus, as recorded in the sixth chapter of Matthew. After uttering the beatitudes and challenging his hearers to be salt in a tasteless culture, and light in a dark world, he moves on to contrast bad and good spiritual etiquette. Certain religious people function as the “Goofus” sort of example, and the three instances of poor behavior that Jesus describes seem rather comical, when you envision what they must have looked like.

The first example concerns the spiritual discipline of giving alms, i.e. giving money to help the poor. Then and now, it was expected that members of a faith community would use a portion of their financial resources to help those in need. Jesus gives us the picture of a wealthy member who arrives at the temple court with an entourage that includes a musician. On cue, the trumpet sounds, and as the eyes of all in the courtyard turn in his direction, the man drops his money into the offering box. The intent is unmistakable: the donor wants everyone in the community to recognize him as a great saint and wonderful benefactor. The donor needs public approval.

The second example concerns the spiritual discipline of prayer, which in Jesus’ time was practiced publicly at certain times throughout the day. Jesus gives us the picture of a person who times her approach to arrive at the busiest corner outside the synagogue at just the appointed hour. She raises her arms and begins to pray loudly in a way that no one can miss. This prayer warrior needs recognition. She hopes that those who see and hear her will recognize a pious saint of the church whose practice of prayer demonstrates how close she is to God.

The third example surrounds the spiritual discipline of fasting, which was required of devout Jews during certain seasons and holy days to focus their hearts and minds on scripture and prayer. Jesus gives us the picture of a person who goes out in public with dirty face and uncombed hair. He wears a grimace on his face that everyone notices. He hopes that those who see his demeanor and hear his stomach growl will recognize what a devout person he is, and think of him as a hero of faith for the sacrifices he seems to be making for God.

In each of these cases, Jesus says that the person already has received his or her reward.  Each has caused some person or another to look and to listen. He or she wanted human attention, and that is exactly what he or she received. Jesus is calling attention to the motive behind and underneath spiritual practices, reminding his hearers that Goofus-like, bad-motive spiritual practices seek approval and reward among humans, while Gallant-like, good-motive spiritual practices seek the approval of God.  In the case of the poor examples, the person is a “hypocrite” because he or she is intentionally and brazenly living a lie: he or she pretends to seek God’s approval, but really wants human reward.

Franklin Boreham once described some “great periods of hypocrisy” in church history.  All of these periods featured an unusually comfortable alliance between the Church and State. Public displays of faith no longer led to marginalization or martyrdom, but rather to public approval, promotion, power, and profit. In such a context, all sorts of ambitious men adopted pious language and rituals, while their private lives showed no zeal for Christ. In these periods, many people turned away from the Church because it seemed hollow and insincere.[1]

In our time and place, I suspect that hypocritical displays of piety are not as tempting as they once were. Fifty years ago, there was more public praise for religious excellence. Community and political leaders set the pace with church attendance, and those who did not attend worship at least were careful not to mow the front yard on Sunday morning. Some contemporary church leaders say that they’re glad the old days are gone, because the old days encouraged hypocrisy.

They say many people were attending church not because they were devoted to God, but because they wanted to be seen as religiously respectable and morally upright by those who could give them business or positions of influence. These contemporary church leaders say that a benefit of living in a post-Christian culture is that public expressions of hypocrisy are on a downward trend, and those who participate are here for the right reasons, more likely to be doing their good deeds quietly, more likely to find the reward that Jesus describes, the reward that really counts.

Of course, hypocrisy has not disappeared. And while it may be tempting to name instances of hypocrisy we think we see around us, the place where we really should focus our examination is on our own hearts and minds. Jesus’ teaching in the sixth chapter of Matthew call us to that sort of examination, because the change at stake is the healthy transformation the Christ can effect in our hearts and minds.  Jesus’ challenge to live differently means he believes that his followers actually can change, even when we’re haunted by the feeling that we are hypocrites.

Michael Lindvall retells a wonderful story by Max Beerbohm about a nobleman named Lord George Hell, a corrupt and shameless sinner. Lord George falls wildly in love with a saintly young woman. To win her love, he covers his bloated features with the mask of a saint. The young woman is deceived, and becomes his bride. They live happily until a woman from Hell’s wicked past shows up and threatens to expose him. She challenges him to take off his mask. Sadly, having no choice, he takes it off. Lo and behold, he discovers that beneath the saint’s mask is the face of the saint that he has become by wearing the mask in love.[2]

Inside every one of us is a Goofus-like sinful nature. Jesus’ teaching implies that we can actually grow to want to do the right thing. We can be reshaped by the Spirit of God, who loves us as we are, but calls us to be more than we are, and leads us down the path toward practicing and realizing our Gallant-like redeemed status. The promise of the gospel is that Jesus lives with us in the midst of our messiness, loves us in the moments of our hypocrisy, and leads us on the journey from sinner toward saint.

[1] Franklin W. Boreham, “Gwen,” in Ships of Pearl, New York: Abingdon Press, 1935, pp. 134-138.

[2] Michael L. Lindvall, A Geography of God, Louisville: WJKP, 2007, p. 101.


~ by JohnH1962 on February 16, 2014.

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