Introduction and Main Thesis
In an earlier post I quote Rowan Williams discussion on the “hypocrite” as scripted characters who loves to play their public role, in this post I want expand on this by way of an analysis of Jesus’s diatribes against the hypocrite in Matthew 23:13-33. My main thesis would be as follows:
(1) The hypocrite is someone who loves their social role, their public persona and position, and acts for the sake of this appearance.
(2) The hypocrite does not “practice what he preach” because he prioritises acting out his public persona even when it conflicts with the precepts he preaches. The hypocrite is not defined by someone who fails to maintain their own standards, it is the consequence of being a hypocrite, not its definition, not a sufficient condition for being a hypocrite.
(3) The hypocrite is unironic about his public role, he really believes, loves and is convinced of it. This is unlike, say, paying taxes to be a good citizen, avoiding unnecessary offense to live peaceably and in harmony with one’s neighbours and cultural expectations at large. In these cases social conformity and meeting social expectation is for a utilitarian or broader purpose or goal, e.g. to live peaceably, in that sense, the conformist here is ironic about his social role, he conforms not in itself but intentionally for a broader purpose. The hypocrite, remember, loves the praise and applause of man, and loves the role he plays, he is unironic about it.
A Brief Discussion on the Word hupokrités
According to word studies, the word hupokrités literally refers to a performer acting under a mask in a theatre, a literal actor. It is only figuratively used to mean a “two-faced” person. However let’s pause for a moment to reflect on this figure of speech before going into the biblical text.
What exactly does an actor do? Is an actor trying to convince the audience that he is the role that he is playing? When Pierce Brosnan acts as 007, is he really trying to convince the audience that he actually is 007? No, he isn’t. Everyone involved, even the actor himself, knows that the actor is not the person whom he is playing. As such, the hupokrités is not intentionally trying to deceive people into believing what he is not. No actor is trying to deceive their audience into believing that he is the character he is playing, we are perfectly well aware that they are not. A person who acts in various ways to convince another that he is what he knows he is not maybe a fraud, he maybe a liar, or he maybe cynical, if he does it to gain a social/political advantage, but what he is not is a hupokrités.
What an actor does do however is to play a role for the applause and praise of the audience. That is the purpose or aim of acting, to master and become the script/role to conform to the audience’s expectation and for their praise. This goes directly to the point of verse 6-7:
And they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and being called Rabbi by men.
It is the praise of man, the honour in the eyes of men, which they seek and crave.
Confirming the Seat of Moses, Dissing the Best Seats in the Synagogues
Let’s begin with the first three verses in Matthew 23:1-3:
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and keep, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
Ah ha! You say, there we have it! The Pharisees and Scribes are hypocrites because they do not practice what they preach! But let’s slow down here for a moment. Jesus here strangely enough confirms their preaching, “therefore all that they tell you, do and keep”. If Jesus’s intention was to condemn their preaching or even their roles as teachers and preachers, why would he continue to exhort us to “do and keep” what the Pharisees say? Why would he continue to confirm their role as occupants of the Seat of Moses? What Jesus does condemn however is their conduct, that we should not imitate them because they do not do as they preach. However, the deeper question here would be, why have they failed to practice what they preached? It cannot be because they were preachy or perform the role of preacher, Jesus confirms their preaching ministry. Something else is what work here which is the cause for them to fail to practice what they preach.
And they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and being called Rabbi by men. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called instructors; for One is your Instructor, that is, Christ.
Thus, the problem here is explicitly that the intention of their deeds is not to help men become holier or to fulfil their moral duty, it is to play their roles as “teachers” and “Rabbi”, to enhance their social role as teacher and superior in the eyes of the public, to be noticed by men.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.
Thus, as the superior Rabbi, they cannot tolerate others usurping their role as the “holy men”, or grapping the places of honour at the banquets and best seats at the synagogues, they “shut off the kingdom of heaven” by tying up heavy burdens and then not lifting a finger to help them. Notice that when Jesus calls them “hypocrites” for devouring widows’ houses and making pretense of long prayers, this has nothing to do with that they failed to practice what they preached, it has to do with their performative actions in public as the superior rabbi and holy men, entitled to widows’ tithes and playing the role as spiritual leader with long prayers. Let’s jump to verse 23 where again we encounter another use of “hypocrites”:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Did Jesus here criticise the scribes and Pharisees for “not practicing what they preach”? No, he expressly says, “these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others”. He does confirm that they acted rightly here, however, their obsessiveness over tithing minutiae in pursuit of their social role has led them to neglect “the weightier provisions of the Law”.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. In this way, you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
These set of verses goes to my point about the lack of irony about the Pharisees and Scribes. He doesn’t say that they acted wrongly outwardly, he does not condemn their actions here. What he says is “You blind Pharisee”, he refers as such to a lack of awareness of how they are consumed by their public role, their public performance, and do not interrogate the self-aggrandisation motives for their actions (“full of robbery and self-indulgence”). They are so concerned with their public persona/image that they neglected to ask the broader purpose, objectives, and intentions for it. They truly are, unironic about their public persona.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you bear witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
Finally we see here a Jesus’s subversion of this social script or persona they have and believe in their minds. By building monuments and other outwardly performative actions, they believe that if they were living in their father’s days, they would have acted differently in not prosecuting their fathers. But Jesus identifies the true narrative path, the script which their story will end, they are their father’s sons, and there’s no reason why they would act differently, and simply building monuments to them will not preclude them from doing so.
Thus, the hypocrite is not the drug addict who says that drugs are evil and destroys lives, and yet falls into it again and again. It is not the person who condemns the evils of pornography as soul destroying and evil, and yet nevertheless struggles with it. The hypocrite does not primarily refer to a person who “doesn’t practice what he preaches”, or a person who fails his own standards, the hypocrite primarily refers to a person who is attached to their public persona, and violate God’s will and precepts to maintain that persona and neglects the actual commandments of God.
Some Ancillary Comments on other Gospel Passages
I want to make some concluding remarks about some other verses from other gospel passages before continuing onto a concrete example.
Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. And they came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.”Mark 12:13-15
Why is Jesus’s judgement of them here characterised as “hypocrisy”? After all, have their failed to practice what they preached? Did they even say something anything false? Is their question even illegitimate? The point here is that Jesus knows that their questions were asked as part of a move in the social positioning game, it was asked “to trap Him in a statement”. Thus, their public positioning and question was insincerely acted out in pursuit of a public/social/political objective, to discredit the public position of their enemy, i.e. Jesus.
While Matthew 6:1-6 only mentions the word “hypocrite” twice, but it clearly touches on the same themes as Matthew 23:13-33 that I think it is worth quoting in full:
“Beware of doing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
“Therefore, when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be glorified by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Again, there is the warning of “doing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them”, clearly Jesus is touching on the same theme which he would later in Matthew 23 continue to expand upon. Jesus here expressly tell us not to give to the poor sounding a trumpet before men “as the hypocrites do”, “so that they may be glorified by men”. There is only one true audience before whom we should perform “your Father who sees what is done in secret” who will give us the true reward.
One might argue but what about Matthew 5:16 to “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”? How can this be consistent with the previous precepts not to do our good works to be seen by men? A brief answer would be, there’s nothing wrong with doing visible good works which can be seen by men, but it must be in such a way that it will “glorify your Father who is in heaven”, not so that men can praise us. This will however mean that we are talking about an “audience” which likewise seeks God and his glory, not for those we hate us, or God. Thus, doing good works is not a game of social positioning, maintaining social persona or brand credibility, for the sake of ourselves or other men’s approval, but that God might be glorified.
1 Peter 2:12 suggests a like reading when it says: “by keeping your conduct excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good works, as they observe them, glorify God in the DAY OF VISITATION.” Thus, while we will not receive the praise of the Gentiles when they “slander you as evildoers”, they may glorify God “in the Day of Visitation”, perhaps not there and then while they are still blinded, but on the Day of Judgement when all is clear and revealed.
A Concluding Concrete Illustration of Biblical “Hypocrisy”
So with the permission of Jacob Beach of The Prepper Bunker Outdoors, I’m sharing the following conversation I had with him in response to one of his videos. I think it is useful because it illustrates how we can be “hypocritical” by being consumed by any social persona not necessarily restricted to those who are teachers in the public realm.
In that live video he was talking about how he doesn’t understand why some people, who after having grown very old, would continue insisting on extending their life constantly even if they were so infirmed they couldn’t clean themselves. Then he made an offhand remark, in semi-jest, that if he arrived at that stage of infirmity he may just get insurance and go for one joy ride off a cliff, but he did clearly disclaimed the idea that people should just kill themselves after they have exhausted their physical strength.
So I had the following private exchange which I also happen to believe to be an excellent illustration of my foregoing points:
A such, I thought the Prepper Bunker here was guilty of this exact error of “hypocrisy”. He had this Prepper rugged self-reliant individual persona, who trains and is physically vigorous and able to protect his household and be of use. This persona however is not consistent with the physical weakness and infirmities of old age, the “shamefulness” of depending on others to care for him, so he can’t live out this persona which he has crafted for himself.
But ultimately our lives are for God and our duties are prescribed by God, we don’t get to define our own destinies or vocation or calling in life, God does. Nothing wrong with pursuing a specific vocation at specific moments in our life, obviously we should strive to be of use and service to others, and if that calling involves physical vigour, then by all means. But we should not demand that our life and calling be live in our own terms rather than on the terms God has called us to. It is this seeking to define themselves and to live in their own personally crafted narrative which makes a person “hypocritical”. There is a danger where we become so attached to being “self-made man” or the vocation in which we are so successful that we become blind to how it is ultimately a gift of God, to be enjoyed at his pleasure. (How does that joke go? The English pride themselves on being self-made man and they worship their creator.)
Sometimes I wonder what will I do if I were to suffer brain damage, become blind, or whatever, such that I can no longer write stuff on Facebook or Twitter or use my mind. I just hope that I would have the strength of conviction and faith to do what I’ve prescribed, spend the rest of my days just making simple prayers for my neighbours and the world, and know that even with such service would be pleasing to God.