Hypocrisy is one of those evils that everyone seems to love to hate. We are more ready to excuse lying, killing, and adultery than we are to excuse hypocrisy.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt represents the thinking of many people when she claims that “hyprocrisy is the vice of vices” and that hypocrites are “rotten to the core.”
Of course, for many years now there has been an open season on hypocrites in the church. This has gone on so long, in fact, that some people are beginning to see that the biggest hypocrites are no longer in the church but are those who stand outside, pointing accusing fingers while boastfully claiming, “I’m every bit as good as those church people.”
Hypocrisy already has more than its share of detractors. I intend to say a few good words on behalf of hypocrisy, as unorthodox as that may sound.
Perhaps you wonder how anyone can possibly say anything positive about hypocrisy. After all, didn’t Jesus issue some of his harshest words against those people that he called hypocrites? Didn’t Jesus firmly condemn the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, even calling them names like “white-washed tombs?” How, then, can a minister have anything good to say about such a vice?
In order to answer that we must, first of all, recognize that what Jesus condemned is not the same thing as what we normally call hypocrisy. In the New Testament, as well as in the Old Testament, hypocrisy does not refer to a conscious insincerity or of someone pretending to be godly when in fact the person cares nothing about God.
Rather, the word translated as hypocrisy has to do with inconsistent and unprincipled action.
The apostle Paul renounced Peter and Barnabas for being hypocrites in Galatians 2, not because they were pretending to be something that they weren’t in fact. Rather Paul objected to Peter and Barnabas’ refusal to eat with the Gentile Christians because they were not being faithful to their own claim that Gentiles are full Christians and should be treated as such.
Likewise, when Jesus attacked the Pharisees for being hypocrites, he was not condemning them for pretending to be good in public while in private they lived by entirely different standards. That’s not it at all.
He blasted them because they were in fact self-righteously convinced of their own goodness and purity. This made them blind to the will of God. The Pharisees were not trying to deceive anyone with an insincere, “public relations” kind of goodness. Rather, they had managed to deceive themselves to the point that they could no longer see the sin in their lives.
At times people are not what they claim, not because they are trying to pull the wool over anyone else’s eyes, but because they don’t know themselves. They claim to be a certain kind of person because that is the way they imagine themselves to be.
The problem is not one of sincerity but of self-perception and personal insight. By the very nature of the beast, we see it in others more readily than we see it in ourselves.
I recall a man I worked with in Nashville, Tennessee who regularly would begin a pronouncement by saying, “I’m the sort of person who …” and inevitably the way he would describe himself would be utterly different from the way many of us who were his co-workers experienced him to be.
He would claim “I’m the sort of person who expects a lot from others because I expect a lot from myself.” But in fact he missed work far more than any of the people he supervised. I also remember him saying, “I’m the sort of person who doesn’t sweat the small stuff but who is concerned about the bigger picture.” But he had a well established reputation for being a nit-picker who was incapable of seeing the big picture.
Sometimes this sort of self-deception is merely amusing and humorous but it can be destructive and tragic. When we cling to gross misperceptions of ourselves we block out the possibility of growing in the way of truth. When we persist in hanging on to an idealized image of ourselves we crush the possibility of dealing with our faults in a realistic manner and instead set ourselves up as the standard of righteousness.
That is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees when he called them hypocrites. The problem was not play-acting but self-righteousness.
Certainly this is not something to be commended. It is hypocrisy of a different sort that I think deserves a good word.
As many of you know, the Greek word for hypocrisy originally referred to the acting done in dramatic presentations; persons would put on masks and adopt identities other than their own. There was nothing deceptive or insincere in this.
The actors had no intention of denying that under their masks they were different persons from the ones they pretended to be and the audience was fully aware of this fact as well. There was nothing dubious or evil in this. The actors or “hypocrites” were playing a role and not being themselves, yet they were sincere about it.
In the Christian life we are called to a sincere hypocrisy. We are to play a role that doesn’t yet fit who we really are. We are to act out a part that is not fully our own. This is what our scripture text for this morning urges us to do: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
The very suggestion that we are capable of imitating God sounds absurd. We’re not up to the part. It’s more than a little bit difficult to act out the role of God; we are not even up to the basics.
Have you ever tried pretending to create a world? I have a hard enough time just keeping a house plant alive. Clearly it is outlandish to suggest that we can or should imitate the overwhelming power of God. Instead we are called to imitate the moral goodness of God, and that is more than enough for us to handle.
Being godly is not something that comes natural to us. Being tender-hearted and forgiving is not our automatic response to those people who have stepped on our toes, much less to those who have seriously injured us, either emotionally or physically.
Our natural response to our offenders is precisely the very things our text for this morning tells us we need to get rid of: bitterness, wrath, anger and malice. These reactions need to be fought back and kept under control. Instead of being ourselves, we are to be like God, acting in gracious love.
Are we being insincere and deceptive when we struggle against our natural tendencies and attempt instead to imitate God in love? Isn’t it more honest to express our true thoughts and feelings?
Some people seem to think so. Too often people have claimed they are “just trying to be frankly truthful,” but in fact they are attempting to find moral sanction for their tendency to indulge in verbal brutality. It is not always best to “be ourselves” if the self that we are is ungodly.
There is in our lives a tension between the spiritual heights toward which we reach and the lower impulses that so often control us. The great cathedrals of medieval Europe aptly illustrate this tension. Their steeples stretch to the sky, seeming to strain toward the glories of heaven. But, tucked away on the same structures are the ugly, grinning gargoyles which peer down upon the earth. Likewise within ourselves there are heavenly aspirations but also ugly, earth-bound impulses.
Many of the great moral thinkers of both past and present have discovered that good actions, those which reflect something of God’s goodness, are not natural to us. They seem foreign to our nature. In order for goodness to be imprinted in our lives we must persist in doing good things even when we do not feel like it, even when it seems contrived and artificial.
These moral teachers claim that even though we are not good, we must do good deeds in order that these deeds will become habitual and natural to us. In other words, if we will deliberately pretend to be good and try to imitate goodness, it will become a part of who we really are. Or to put it in another way, sincere hypocrisy can produce virtue.
The 19th-century German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche wrote, “The hypocrite who always plays one and the same role finally ceases to be a hypocrite.” Max Beerbohn’s play, “The Happy Hypocrite,” deals with a wealthy aristocrat named Lord George Hell, a self-indulgent and morally-corrupt man who falls in love with a saintly girl. In order to win her heart, he covers his own face, which shows the signs of his debauchery, with the mask of a saint. The girl is deceived and marries him.
Together they live in happiness until an evil woman from Lord George Hell’s immoral past enters the scene in order to reveal his true identity as a scoundrel. She challenges him to take off his mask. Reluctantly and sadly he removes it, and, low and behold, beneath the saint’s mask is the face of the saint he had been transformed into by wearing it in love. What began as pretense became real through practice.
If we believe we are genuinely and thoroughly good then we deceive ourselves, as did the Pharisees before us. Let us rather acknowledge that we are sinful and set ourselves to the task of imitating the goodness of God, being sincere hypocrites. Then by the grace of God the goodness that we pretend to have may finally become real.

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