Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Matthew 23:1–12
Some people use hypocrisy for the reason that they no longer go to church because they believe the church to be filled with hypocrites. I’ve heard it many times, both from people who have permanently left the church and those who have thought of leaving.
And I sympathize with that. No one likes a hypocrite.
For myself, when I experience true hypocrisy, I feel it in my chest—a tightness that comes from anger, feelings of distrust and being misled, and even hurt and confusion if the hypocrisy is coming from someone I love or admire.
I know I’m not alone. The cognitive dissonance and disillusionment we experience when hypocrisy is exhibited by religious leaders or others whom we hold in high esteem can send us reeling. It seems incomprehensible that someone could live a completely duplicitous life.
Hypocrisy comes from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “an actor” or “a stage player” and literally translates as “an interpreter from underneath.” In ancient Greek theater, the actors would wear large masks representative of the character they were portraying. So actors would "hide" underneath their masks. Over time, the definition of hypocrisy shifted from one who hides beneath a figurative mask to the “behavior in which someone pretends to have moral standards or opinions that they do not actually have.”
I think we can all admit that at various times in our lives, we have hidden beneath masks, allowing our pride and ego to inhibit our ability to be authentic, vulnerable, and honest. Yet, in Sunday’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ admonition against hypocrisy. Fortunately for us, He not only gives us a warning but gives us the antidote for it: humility.
In order to understand Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, it’s helpful to examine their role in society. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, who lived from 37-100 AD, documents the various sects of Jews in his book Antiquities of the Jews. He notes that of the three main sects of Jews, the Pharisees held positions of great social power and were particularly able to influence other Jews:
They are able greatly to persuade the body of the people: and whatsoever they do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction. Insomuch, that the cities give great attestations to them, on account of their intire [sic] virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives, and their discourses also.
In fact, Josephus goes so far as to say that the Sadducees “addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees.”
When Jesus gives the crowd and His disciples a warning to not model their lives after the Pharisees and the scribes, He is challenging them to turn away from a group of people they’ve been upholding as a model for how to practice their religion: “Do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:3). He goes on to outline the Pharisees' failures as religious leaders in the community.
First, their actions did not correspond with the Scripture they so ardently preached (Matthew 23:3). Second, they were so concerned with the letter of the law that they failed to see how it could be burdensome to individuals, particularly the poor (Matthew 23:4), which contradicts Jesus’ mission. In the words of Bishop Robert Barron:
At the core of Jesus’ program is a willingness to bear other people’s burdens, to help them carry their loads. And this applies to the moral life as well. If we lay the burden of God’s law on people, we must be willing, at the same time, to help them bear it.
Third, they were more preoccupied with others perceiving them as pious than they were with actually living holy lives (Matthew 23:5). Finally, their desire to have lofty titles, be seated in places of honor, and overall be held in high esteem, engrossed them and distracted them from being a servant to their brothers and sisters.
Shortly after this, Jesus turns from His disciples and the crowd to the Pharisees and directly addresses them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13). Therefore, his warning to the crowd—to not emulate the lives of scribes and Pharisees—is, in essence, a warning against hypocrisy.
While we might not have the social influence the Pharisees did, each of us has the power to teach—by word or by example—the people in our lives. And so, we must be willing to step out from underneath the mask we are holding up. In order to be humble, authentic, honest, and vulnerable, we must step away from the vice of pride; the vice that longs to protect our ego and assures us we lose something in being of service to another, the vice that tells us our brokenness, messiness, and humanness is unlovable, irredeemable and therefore must be hidden.
How do we do this?
Through the virtue of humility: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). This is the path Jesus lays before us if we want to get to heaven. Indeed, it is the path He models for us: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him” (Philippians 2:8–9). He wants our hearts, not just outward signs of reverence and piety. He wants our whole selves so that in our weaknesses, His name can be glorified.
So, my sister, what mask are you clinging to? Will you lay it down and live a life for Christ?
Food for thought or journaling…
Of the four things Jesus calls to attention: preaching but not practicing, unwillingness to bear another’s burden, being overly concerned with people’s perception of your holiness, and a desire to be held in high esteem—with which do you struggle the most? What is one way you can humble yourself this week?
Dear Jesus, deliver me from the desire to be held in high esteem and from the desire to be noticed and praised. Help me to lower my mask so that others may see my weaknesses and that through my weaknesses, Your grace may be perfected so that Your Holy Name may be glorified all the days of my life.
 “The Origin of ‘Hypocrite,’” Merriam-Webster (accessed October 23, 2023): https://www.merriam-webster.com/wordplay/hypocrite-meaning-origin.
 “Definition of Hypocrisy Noun from the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary,” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (2023): https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/hypocrisy.
 Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, “Book XVIII,” in The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (London: London Print. and Pub. Co., 1860), https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/index.html.
 Bishop Robert Barron, “Gospel Reflection - Saturday, August 26, 2023,” Word on Fire (August 25, 2023): https://www.wordonfire.org/reflections/a-ordinary-wk20-saturday/.