Hypocrisy Is a Killer
By Audrey Stallsmith
We are reading the scripture lesson aloud in church one day, when I get distracted by an ominous verse. "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven."
I stop to squint doubtfully at it, while the rest of the congregation plows on. Why do I suddenly find that verse alarming, when I've seen it hundreds of times before? It can't apply to me, can it? Who exactly were the scribes and Pharisees?
All dry and dusty males with gray beards and headdresses, I reassure myself, who thought their wealth and religiousness made them superior to everybody else. Obviously they have nothing in common with a poor, 21st-century female--except for the fact that we all wear skirts!
As the verse worries me, however, I return to it later. I am then struck by the fact that, although Matthew often lumps the Sadducees with the Pharisees, the Sadducees aren't mentioned this time.
Their omission here could be, I realize, because they weren't the ones claiming to be righteous. The educated aristocrats of their day, who went along with Roman and Grecian culture, they discounted anything that wasn't specifically mentioned in Mosaic law. So they didn't believe in heaven or hell. And people who don't expect a day of reckoning have little incentive to worry about anything beyond this present life. They would have to be equated with modern humanists, who also tend to discount the supernatural, and believe more in man than they do in God.
Suddenly, all those ancient graybeards don't seem so distant after all. And, if that was who the Sadducees were, then the scribes and Pharisees would have to be the group that opposed them by defending the supernatural. The religious right of their day. My kind of people!
So why does Jesus say, in effect, "Unless your goodness is greater than that of the most religious people of your day, you aren't going to make it?" Granted, some of the Pharisees were blatant hypocrites, secretly practicing sin while making a pretense of morality. Although there are still a few of those types around, most of my Christian acquaintances seem to be--like me--struggling but sincere.
Jesus can't mean us, can he? Unless, perhaps, hypocrisy isn't just insincerity, but sincerity about the wrong things?
I decide to consider the problem in metaphor, as things are sometimes easier to understand that way. Let's posit that we all live in a corrupt medieval kingdom. Years ago, there was a good king. But an evil servant convinced the King's subjects that His rules were too strict and induced them to rebel. Now ruled by that evil servant, we are all in misery. But many remain loyal to what they remember of the true King.
We might say that the Pharisees are those who love him simply because he is a King. They adhere staunchly to his rules just to prove that they are aristocrats too. They sometimes even make those rules stricter to flaunt their allegiance.
But what really matters most to them is the veneration that being associated with the King's name gives them. They never really take the time to understand the reasons behind His rules. But they remain convinced that, when He returns, He will see them as his only true followers.
Their superior attitude, however, turns many against that King. As Augustine writes of hypocrites, "With their doctrine they build, and with their lives they destroy."
Francis Schaeffer agrees that "Christianity is not just a mental assent that certain doctrines are true -- not even that the right doctrines are true. This is only the beginning. This would be rather like a starving man sitting in front of great heaps of food and saying, 'I believe the food exists; I believe it is real,' and yet never eating it."
Jeremy Taylor points out that "The Pharisees minded what God spoke, but not what He intended. They were busy in the outward work of the hand, but incurious of [not careful about] the affections and choice of the heart. So God was served in the letter, they did not much inquire into His purpose; and therefore they were curious [careful] to wash their hands, but cared not to purify their hearts."
In other words, though claiming to love God, they were really more concerned with what He could do for them and their reputations. They resemble certain name droppers nowadays, who like to brag that they are friends with the rich and famous, but don't really care about those people at all.
In Life Can Begin Again, Helmut Thielicke holds that hypocrisy "happens when our life, including our inner life, is not lived in a primary relationship with God. . .but is lived outwardly directed toward men."
"Their [the hypocrites'] quest for the presence of God," Watchman Nee contends, "is not for God's sake but for their happiness. . .Their total life and labor elevate self as the center." Or, as Augustine puts it, "The problem with the hypocrite is his motivation. He does not want to be holy; he only wants to seem to be holy. He is more concerned with his reputation for righteousness than about actually becoming righteous. The approbation of men matters more to him than the approval of God."
But one day the true King's Son comes to visit the family kingdom. And He announces that His Father is offering everyone the chance to be adopted into the royal family. The Pharisees are, of course, outraged. The Prince is furnishing, free of charge, what they worked so hard to attain. And to the rabble, no less!
No wonder they refuse to believe that He is the King's Son at all. No wonder they have Him killed instead. In effect, they are saying that they are right and God Himself is wrong.
I've just been reading about how, in 1942, a battalion of German soldiers marched all the Jewish women and children of Jozefow, Poland out into the forest and shot them to death. Although the leader of that battalion did allow those opposed to the killing to opt out of it, only about a dozen took him up on that offer.
How could soldiers in a supposedly Christian country--most of whom didn't even belong to the Nazi party--do such a thing? And this is, of course, only one example of the wholesale slaughter of Jews that went on at that time. Simply because the German soldiers held to the Pharisaical us-against-them idea that their side was always right, even when it was murdering God's chosen people.
We saw the same attitude, when the news about Abu Ghraib came out. Instead of condemning the American torturers, some people condemned those who told on them instead. But those same people are quick enough to denounce torture when it is performed by the enemy!
One thing such hypocrites may have overlooked is that peculiar parable about the wedding and the wedding garment. Granted, admission to God's banquet is free, but there is still a requirement made of those who plan to stay.
Are we in the same position that the Pharisees were before Jesus came? Is all that we really know about God based on the ancient reports of other people? Are we only obeying the rules, as they did, to be on the right side when the King comes back?
"Well, you couldn't have loved God much when you made the decision to enter His family," I remind myself. "You didn't know Him very well back then." Which leads to the even more worrisome question. "Do you really love Him better now, or do you just know more about Him?"
As I've asserted in previous articles, God isn't too proud to accept us when our motives are less than pure. But Jesus warns that, once we are in the family, just following the rules isn't enough. And he immediately begins to talk about attitudes. Especially anger.
That hits a nerve. Because, if there is one attitude that the Pharisees and the religious right can be said to have in common, it is anger. The Pharisees against the Sadducees and Romans, and us against what we perceive as the anti-religious academic and political establishments of our day. But, if those people are disrespecting our Father, don't we have a right to be angry with them?
Perhaps, but I suspect most of that anger is on our own behalf rather than God's. We really think those people are disrespecting us when they discount our family name. So we lash out in return.
Although Jesus had stated earlier in the Sermon on the Mount that it is the humble, needy, and persecuted who are truly blessed, He obviously realized that his audience didn't believe Him any more than we do. (They were looking at what he said, but not swallowing it!) And that they would still fight each other, tooth and nail, to be top dog. No doubt the Pharisees hatred of the Sadducees was partly based on envy of their superior social position.
But Jesus cautions that, when we feel contempt for other human souls, we are in danger of hell fire. Because we have a spirit in us that is not His.
As if to hammer the point home, the rest of that chapter continues to talk about attitude. The idea, for example, that we shouldn't try to give God any gifts while we are holding resentment towards other people in our hearts. The idea that we shouldn't be lusting after things that Jesus warns us against--like worldly status and power as well as the more obvious sexual immorality. Both of these cravings are a form of unfaithfulness.
Instead, Jesus cautions us, we should ruthlessly cut off anything in our lives that might endanger our adoption. Not to mention that He requires us to give people more than they can legitimately demand from us, and to love our enemies.
Ironically enough, the Pharisees--who claimed to serve God--became His enemies. Perhaps because he didn't hate anybody Himself. Instead of holding aloof from sinners, as they did, He showed concern for everyone. But how are we to manage what is far easier said than done? As Hannah More put it, "When we read, we fancy we could be martyrs; when we come to act, we cannot bear a provoking word."
In one of the most controversial statements of his career, Christ said, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Messiah and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you." Although this declaration can, of course, refer to the sacrament of Communion, I believe it points to something deeper--of which that sacrament is a symbol.
It warns us that we can't change our attitudes on our own--that we have to have His Spirit in us to do that. This is proved by the fact that, when the offended disciples asked Jesus what He meant, He replied that "Only the Holy Spirit gives eternal life." And I suspect the wedding garment in that parable I mentioned earlier was supposed to be our acceptance of the Spirit that is provided for us.
Yes, there is more than a bit of the supernatural involved. So here's our chance to prove whether we really believe in it or not! After all, as Hannah Whithall Smith frequently points out, the Holy Spirit is not something we can work up on our own. He is simply God's Spirit, provided to us.
As Schaeffer indicates, we can't just look at Christ's message and approve it from the outside. Or consider it a lovely ideal, but unrealistic. We must swallow that message, get it inside us, or we will never have the right attitudes. If we aren't willing to allow His Spirit to displace our own, however, we will become worse than the heathen.
J. C. Ryle warns us, " The same fire which melts the wax hardens the clay; the same sun, which makes the living tree grow, dries up the dead tree and prepares it for burning. Nothing so hardens the heart of man as a barren familiarity with sacred things... it is not privileges alone which make people Christians, but the Grace of the Holy Ghost." C. S. Lewis puts it a bit more succinctly when he writes that, "Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst."
Even a religion that we adopt to make us feel happier--rather than superior to others--will, in the end, fail. It is still based on us, rather than on God.
Not to mention that, from the number of times the Bible talks about chastening, we can conclude that our religion isn't always going to make us feel happy. How well we take such discipline will depend on how much we love that Father. Are we more concerned with pleasing Him than pleasing ourselves?
We had better be. I suspect--or at least hope--that many of those German soliders looked back with horror later on what they had done. They could tell us, as Smith does, that, "Any rejoicing which has self for its foundation must necessarily end in disappointment, for sooner or later self always disappoints us."