Just Thinking About Hypocrisy
A reasonable example of hypocrisy is intentionally misleading others, for personal gain, by pretending to have virtues, character, moral, or religious beliefs that one does not really possess. I think it does not include sins of failure to live up to what we truly believe but must have those elements of falsely claimed belief with personal gain as the motive.
I think hypocrisy was probably more common in the days of my youth when communities always harbored suspicions, at least in small towns, about anybody not in church, and respectable businessmen were certainly expected to be there regularly in coat and tie on Sunday mornings, preferably seated near the front. It was good for business and reputation. That’s a dead tradition.
Since we all behave inconsistently with our professed faith from time to time, is hypocrisy the one sin against which there is no defense? Is a claim that one is not a hypocrite a perfect example of hypocrisy, thus proving that one is a hypocrite? If we are all guilty of at least occasional hypocrisy, at what point does such guilt justify the label “hypocrite?” Or, at what point does our behavior justify, or at least support, the label “Christian?” Can we bear both labels at once?
Hypocrisy in Sacred Scripture
If one wants to study the sin of Hypocrisy in Sacred Scripture, Matthew seems to be the authority. Forms of the word only show up 27 times in the entire Catholic Bible (NABRE), and more than half of those, fourteen, are in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
It is worth noting that the Hebrew translated as hypocrite in the Psalms meant divided or half-hearted or doubting, a dissembler, or a person who hides or conceals self.
The Greek translated as hypocrite in Matthew, meant “stage actor” and was a neutral term. In modern English, “hypocrite” is always negative and scornful. Nobody likes a hypocrite! So “hypocrite” carries a lot more meaning today than “stage actor” did 2000 years ago. “Pretender” might be a good synonym.
Here is a summary of the Biblical usages of forms of hypocrite:
- There are two OT instances that don’t seem to be very good advice for us today.
Psalm 26:4 I do not sit with deceivers, nor with hypocrites do I mingle.
Psalm 119:113 I hate every hypocrite; your teaching I love.
- There are two helpful instances in the Gospel according to St. Mark, the first being a good definition of religious hypocrisy.
Mark 7:6 He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
Mark 12:15 Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.”
- There are four instances in the Gospel according to St. Luke.
Luke 6:42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.
Luke 12:1 Meanwhile, so many people were crowding together that they were trampling one another underfoot. He began to speak, first to his disciples, “Beware of the leaven– that is, the hypocrisy— of the Pharisees.
Luke 12:56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Luke 13:15 The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering?
- St. Paul uses the word only three times, twice in a single sentence, in his letter to the Galatians, criticizing those Jewish Christians, Barnabas included, who had stopped eating with Gentile Christians because of what someone else might think of them, and once in his 1st letter to Timothy. I don’t understand how to interpret that usage which seems to mostly target “liars.”
Galatians 2:13 And the rest of the Jews (also) acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
1 Timothy 4:1-2 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences.
- There are two bits of advice about hypocrisy in Sirach. I suppose the second one refers to the evils of proof texting as opposed to understanding the law in context.
Sirach 1:26 Play not the hypocrite before men; over your lips keep watch.
Sirach 32:15 He who studies the law masters it, but the hypocrite finds it a trap.
- And the remaining fourteen instances are all from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the book generally recognized by Bible scholars as targeting an audience of Jewish Christians. The simplest clue for that is that Matthew sometimes repeats passages from Mark and changes “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of Heaven” presumably in deference to Jews who traditionally don’t write the name “God.” Nine of the fourteen are in Matthew 23, all targeting the scribes and pharisees who, according to 24:51, will be wailing and grinding their teeth. Here they are:
Matthew 6:2, 5, 16 When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. 5 “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. 16 “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
Matthew 7:5 You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 15:7-9 Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: 8 ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.'”
Matthew 22:18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Matthew 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. (But) these you should have done, without neglecting the others.25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.28 Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous,
Matthew 24:51 and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Now, back to the questions in the opening paragraph. The main passages of interest in our discussion were the Gospel Readings for Wednesday from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6 about how we give and pray and fast, all considered good and normal practices of Christians. The mistake is in doing those things in ways that call attention to ourselves rather than glorifying God.
According to my encyclopedic commentary (The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8, Page 200), St. Matthew’s criticism is aimed not at Jews in general or even at Scribes and Pharisees in general but at people “who perform religious acts with an eye on the human grandstand.” That means they are doing the acts for some personal benefit or gain.
And good works are required and are not the problem. The issue seems to be motivation, whether our hearts are in the right place. We are not supposed to completely hide our good works but are collectively to be “salt of the earth,” “light of the world,” “a city set on a mountain,” doing good works so that others may see the Body of Christ in action and be motivated to join us in glorifying God. At least that is what St. Matthew said in the previous chapter. It’s not all about us! It is about God!
Matthew 5:13-16 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp-stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
So, while it is a very bad idea to claim for ourselves the distinction of not being hypocrites, we certainly have hope that we can be guilty of confess-able hypocrisy from time to time without having to bear the ugly label HYPOCRITE. Unfortunately, we can’t escape the label “sinner.”
As Father Linsky summarized near the end of our discussion, the issue for us is religious hypocrisy, having our hearts in one place and our practices in another. If our hearts are in the right place, “Christian” triumphs “hypocrite.”
Hypocrisy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Before leaving the subject, we should take a look at hypocrisy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It shows up only one time in Paragraph 2468 in Part Three, Life in Christ, in Article 8 on the Eighth Commandment. Here it is:
2468 Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.
Not much information there about hypocrisy. Just guard against it!
All this ruminating reminds me of The Platters and The Great Pretender.