we saw it (heard it) for ourselves
Lenten foolishness


“Are you kidding?  Do you think I’d go to church there?  I wouldn’t set one foot inside that place!  That bunch is nothing but a pack of hypocrites!”

1 hyprocriteHave you ever heard anything like this?  Have you ever said anything like this?  A commonly observed flaw in Christian behavior, with varying degrees of accuracy, is that it is “hypocritical.”  Three times in the Ash Wednesday gospel reading from St. Matthew, Jesus makes observations about the behavior of “hypocrites.”  And his comments are not flattering.  They’re along the lines of what not to do!

I’m about to do something which is not exactly authoritative, and that is, to define a Biblical word in an English translation of the Bible.  (You do realize that the Bible was not written in English!)  But here’s what the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says about “hypocrite”:  number 1, “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion,” and number 2, “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”[1]

When Jesus disapproves of the hypocrites, is he thinking of our current-day idea of the word?  That would almost make things easier.  (And yes, I’ll try to explain what I’m talking about!)

If Jesus is saying that we need to practice what we preach, then, as challenging as that may be at times, it still seems to be something we can get a handle on.  It seems like we can notice whether or not we’re doing it—to an extent.  And if we can’t, there’s usually somebody else who’s willing to point out where our words and deeds don’t quite match up!  Some of us are blessed with more than one such person!  Actually, that’s why it’s impossible to live the Christian life in isolation:  we need the community of faith.

I started thinking about the word “hypocrite” when I noticed the translation in the Anchor Bible.  In all three places where most English versions read “the hypocrites,” it reads “the overscrupulous.”[2]  That puts a different spin on the entire passage.  It sounds like what Jesus has in mind aren’t so much frauds—they aren’t so much phonies—but rather, those who want to “demonstrate their spiritual superiority.”[3]

Our word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek ύποκριτης (hupokritēs).  It originally meant “interpreter” (as in interpreter of dreams) or “one who explains.”  Later, it took on the meaning of “actor,” like one who performs in a play.  It had the idea of speaking the lines in a play.

It’s this definition of “actor” that was the commonly-understood meaning of the word for centuries.  So there wasn’t necessarily a derogatory sense associated with being a hypocrite.  It wasn’t always an insult.

2 actress(In fact, far from an insult, on the TV show The Big Bang Theory, there’s a scene in which Sheldon wants acting lessons so he can appear to care about his students.  He comes to Penny, unsure of her qualifications, but she insists that she is not an “actress,” but an actress!)

It appears that it’s only well after the New Testament era that “hypocrite” takes on the metaphorical sense.  That is, of people pretending to be something other than what they are, of not practicing what they preach.[4]  So Jesus is saying, “whenever you give alms”…”whenever you pray”…”whenever you fast”…don’t be actors.  Don’t play a role.

After each time Jesus warns against behaving like the hypocrites, he adds this: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, 16).  They’ve received their reward.  What reward is that?

What reward do actors receive?  Or at least, what reward do actors hope to receive?  Actually, Jesus tells us:  “so that they may be praised by others” (v. 2).  Actors, and performers in general, want to be applauded; they don’t want to be booed.  Anyone who’s been on stage, be it for a school play or doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl, can tell you that.

If that’s all you want your life to add up to—the acclaim given to actors, to hypocrites—that’s fine.  But Jesus suggests something much better.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

A life that only has the symbolic fifteen minutes of fame, in the end, isn’t much of a life.  Jesus concludes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21).  So where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?  And what does that mean for us tonight?

Our scripture passage is taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  Earlier, in chapter 5, Jesus says to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (v. 16).  What’s the difference between letting your light shine and being a hypocrite—whether that’s being an actor, as Jesus is likely saying, or being two-faced, as we might say?

3 ash wednesday

Let’s use Ash Wednesday as an experiment.  Receiving ashes on your forehead is something others will notice.  Now, if you’re hoping others will notice the ashes and think you’re spiritual, then I would suggest wiping them off before you leave the premises.

On the other hand, if you’re reluctant to let others see that ashy sign of the cross, that’s a different story.  If you’re embarrassed and don’t want to look like a fool for Christ, then I would suggest that you leave that thing right where it is!

This is true anytime we practice our “piety [or righteousness] before others,” as Jesus says in verse 1.  If we do it “to be seen by them,” then we “have no reward from [our] Father in heaven.”  We’ve received all the reward our actions will get, puny as it may be.

That’s true for Ash Wednesday.  That’s true for leading prayer in a group.  That’s true for feeding the hungry.  That’s true for nonviolently assembling and calling for justice and peace.  That’s true for visiting the sick and the prisoner.  If love for God isn’t our motivation, then our treasure is meager indeed.

4 ash wednesday

So let’s not be hypocrites; let’s not be actors.  Let’s let the ashes do the talking!


[1] www.m-w.com/dictionary/hypocrite

[2] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 73, 74, 78.

[3] Albright and Mann, cxxiii.

[4] Albright and Mann, cxvii.


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