Hypocrisy: A Different Definition

  • Isaiah 29:13
  • Matthew 15:7-9

Give the typical definition of a hypocrite. (Please be prepared to share that definition/concept with the class.)

Today, typically, a hypocrite is a person who indulges in or practices hypocrisy. To engage in hypocrisy is to engage in pretense. It is a pretending designed to deceive. The person gives the appearance of being something he/she is not. The 21st century concept and definition of hypocrisy is illustrated by the capable con man or con woman. He/she so convincingly presents himself/herself as something he/she is not that he/she convincingly deceives the victim. Without guilty conscience or misgiving, he/she sincerely convinces others that he/she is something he/she is not. The objective of this deceitfulness is to exploit the trusting or the gullible.

For exploitation to occur, the con must deceive. First and foremost, the con must convince his/her victim, “I am genuine, and I am truly concerned about you and your good.” By the commonly accepted definition, a good con must be the ideal hypocrite if he/she is to successfully deceive.

The ancient word for hypocrisy came from a Greek word in the stage vocabulary. It was a word that referred to one who acted, who through acting played a role in a stage presentation. It is not difficult to under-stand how the word came to be associated with people who pretended. Such people were merely playing a role. Such people were not revealing who they were as persons. They merely wanted others to see them as they presented themselves. It is one thing to act on a stage to entertain people. It is quite another to deceive people by pretending.

However, Jesus’ use of the word hypocrisy, while including pretense, went beyond pretense. It included misrepresenting God, His purposes, or His values. In today’s typical usage of the concept of hypocrite, we would not associate the concept of hypocrisy with the Pharisees as Jesus often did. In today’s common concept of hypocrisy, it is associated with conscious pretense. The person knowingly is pretending. He/she knows, “I am misleading or deceiving others.” He/she deliberately [often with calculation!] misleads someone. The conscious objective is to deceive. With all their faults and shortcomings, the Pharisees were not consciously, knowingly, deliberately trying to deceive or misguide others. They were certain they did not misrepresent God – Jesus did that!

The Pharisees were deeply disturbed by social trends among Israelites. In their understanding the people were drifting from their roots and their history. A complex combination of factors in their society and world worked together for generations to produce Israel’s migration from their roots. As a group, before Jesus’ birth, they committed themselves to urge [perhaps challenging demand] that Israel return to the “old paths” [their words] and restore Israel’s ancient emphases.

To encourage Israel in this restoration of the “old paths,” the Pharisees particularly stressed two things: (1) cleanliness [or purity] rituals and (2) restricting Israel to kosher diets (Leviticus 11). A cleanliness [or purification] ritual is seen in the “washing of hands” (Matthew 15:1, 2). Please remember that neither of these had to do with 20th or 21st century hygiene practices, but with religious convictions.

Jesus associated these acts with Pharisaic hypocrisy: the religious role they served, the phylacteries [small boxes containing some scriptures] they wore on religious occasions, the clothing with its religious symbols they wore, their love of seats of honor at banquets and in synagogues, and their love of respectful greetings (see Matthew 23:1-12). Today it is unlikely we would consider such matters as acts of hypocrisy.

A relevant question: to Jesus, how were these things expressions of hypocrisy? The answer is frightening! Jesus said their motives and emphasis misrepresented God’s priorities and concerns, and that was the core of their hypocrisy. They were supposed to be God’s spokesmen. They were supposed to call attention to God’s concerns. They were supposed to highlight matters that acknowledged God’s righteousness and God’s holiness. Jesus said when Jews observed their motives and things that were important to them, their emphasis caused other Jews totally to misunderstand God’s concerns and priorities. God’s concerns were not [are not] captured in the performance of rituals, but in the priorities of the human heart. When a religious ritual becomes a matter of performance rather than the surrender of the human heart, God’s priorities are misrepresented (1 Samuel 15:22,23; Acts 4:19-22).

Thought Questions:

  1. In today’s typical concept of hypocrisy, where is the focus placed?
  2. What is an modern example of this focus?
  3. What was the source of the definition/concept of hypocrisy in Jesus’ day?
  4. In his definition, what else did Jesus include commonly absent in today’s typical focus?
  5. What deeply concerned the Pharisees? If you share their concern, explain why you are concerned.
  6. How did the Pharisees address their concern for the direction Israel’s society was moving?
  7. In Matthew 23:1-12, what did Jesus cite as expressions of Pharisaic hypocrisy? Would we typically consider such matters as hypocrisy?
  8. Why did Jesus consider such things as hypocrisy?
  9. What role were the Pharisees supposed to occupy?
  10. How did their behaviors and interests misrepresent God?

Interaction Question:

  1. According to Jesus’ concept of hypocrisy, how can Christ accepting people of today embrace Pharisaic hypocrisy?