How to shed hypocrisy and embrace Jesus

The Pharisees are the worst. There, I said it.

Hearing a recent sermon on Matthew 23, I found it hard not to savour every word of Jesus’ brutal critique of the religious leaders. With the precision of a surgeon, he exposes their corruption.

But it only takes a little imagination to stop seeing Pharisaism as a problem out there and recognise it as uncomfortably close to home. On social media, we project a shiny image of ourselves, important and put-together. In public discourse, and unfortunately often in Christian community, we gather into tribes, excluding those who fail to meet our rigid expectations. Since the beginning, our gut response to the knowledge of our own vulnerability and sin is hiding and deflecting, the way Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden and blamed their sin on others (Gen 3:7-13).

In his rebuke of the religious leaders, Jesus labels this condition hypocrisy, using the Greek word for a stage actor. It means one who plays a part – one who wears a mask.

An ancient Greek theatrical mask of Zeus Wikimedia / Magnus Manske

The religious leaders have led the people of God astray by their pretence and hypocrisy, and Jesus holds them accountable.

But what is so dangerous about hypocrisy that Jesus criticises it with such severity? How can we avoid hypocrisy ourselves, given how much we crave approval? In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks to the religious leaders of his day. And yet, in many ways, he speaks to us.

Hypocrisy creates barriers between others and God

First, Jesus accuses them of creating barriers between others and God. He warns the crowd and his disciples that their leaders put heavy burdens on the shoulders of others but are unwilling to help others lift them.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,” he declares. “You hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” Not only will these leaders not enter, but they prevent those who are trying to.

These “blind guides”, desperate to justify their status, crush God’s people under the weight of self-serving legalism.

When we act as if we have anything apart from the grace of God, when we elevate non-gospel issues to justify our own status before God or humans, when we put additional burdens on the shoulders of others, we risk shutting the door to the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.

Hypocrisy hides corruption with a polished exterior

Second, Jesus accuses the religious leaders of hiding their corruption with a polished exterior. “You are like whitewashed tombs,” Jesus scolds, “which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

We are no strangers to this element of hypocrisy in the age of social media personas and virtue signalling. Could someone equally say of us, “Everything they do is done for people to see”?

The religious leaders loved to display their piety and to be treated with respect. But they were like a cup and dish cleaned on the outside but filthy on the inside. “First clean the inside,” Jesus instructed, “then the outside also will be clean.”

When we virtue signal to our neighbours or our brothers and sisters, we risk presenting a polished exterior and hiding a deeper impurity. Instead, Jesus offers to make us clean from the inside out.

Hypocrisy refuses Jesus’ care

Finally, Jesus laments that Jerusalem would not allow itself to be gathered under his wings, though he often longed to gather them “as a hen gathers her chicks”.

In their hypocrisy, the religious leaders who represent this unrepentant nation are blind. Five times Jesus calls them blind because they fail to see spiritual truth even when it stares them in the face. They fail to see what Jesus is offering – who he is. So they will not see him again until it is too late.

What is it that these blind religious leaders, and all those who suppress the truth rather than see Jesus for who he is, refuse? What is it that Jesus will do for those who come to him? He will gather them under his wings, shielding them from all harm and exposing himself as their protector.

But hypocrites cannot admit their need for Jesus. What they love are places of honour and important seats, being greeted with respect and given honourable titles. Hypocrites refuse to come to Jesus because they are wilfully blind to their need. They refuse to be loved by God because they refuse to gather humbly under Jesus and admit that he is their salvation.

How to shed hypocrisy

In the right-side-up dynamics of the kingdom of God, the greatest is the one who serves. The greatest is the one who humbles him- or herself like a child, with terrifying implications for those who cause these children to stumble (Matt 18:4-6).

The greatest is the one who follows Jesus’ example.

Jesus, through the very act of humbling himself, is exalted to the highest place.

The religious leaders puffed themselves up with displays of their status. Jesus “emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil 2:7)

The religious leaders exalted themselves, demanding obedience to oppressive religious systems. Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:8)

The religious leaders place heavy burdens on the shoulders of others, while Jesus’ “burden is light.” (Matt 11:30).

In the right-side-up kingdom of God, the self-exalting religious leaders are humbled as the Lord himself exposes their hypocrisy. Jesus, through the very act of humbling himself, is exalted to the highest place and given the name that is above every name. (Phil 2:9). “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In our pursuit of humility, we might start by doing what hypocrites cannot do.

If hypocrisy means one who plays a part, one who wears a mask, then perhaps the first step to humbly gathering under Jesus’ wings is taking off our masks.

Jesus exposes their sin because they refuse to expose it themselves – the very act by which they might receive forgiveness.

Sometimes the gospel writers preserve the same traditions but in different orders. In Luke’s Gospel, as here in Matthew’s, Jesus also says, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14) But in Luke’s Gospel, this statement concludes a parable, in which Jesus also criticises the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”‘ (Luke 18:9-14a)

The Pharisees refuse to take off their masks and admit their need for forgiveness. Jesus exposes their sin because they refuse to expose it themselves – the very act by which they might receive forgiveness.

Come to Jesus, unmasked, and receive mercy.

Join in the fellowship of the family of God, whom Paul instructs, “Let your love be unhypocritical.” (Romans 12:9) Together with his people, enjoy the love of God, poured out not because of your own merit, but because he longs to love you, and has made a way through his son.

What would it look like to take off your mask in this community? What would it look like to take off your mask on social media or in life’s difficult conversations? Would would it look like to reflect not blind self-righteousness, but a humble knowledge of God’s grace to a broken sinner?

The more we press into this grace, the less we will hide behind a mask, covered instead by the sacrificial love of Jesus.