Woe, woe, and woe. For three days, now, as we have begun our semester together, the “woes” in Matthew’s gospel have built to a crescendo. (Spoiler alert: no “woes” in tomorrow’s gospel reading). Along with the repetition of woes is the repetition of the critique of hypocrisy.
Mark mentions the sin of hypocrisy once, Luke twice, and John not at all. But Matthew’s Jesus rebukes the religious leaders a dozen times for their hypocrisy — they sound a trumpet when they give alms, they pray on street corners to be seen by others, they disfigure their faces so that their fasting will be noticed, they honor God with their lips but not with their hearts (Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 15:17).
Our word “hypocrisy” is related to two Greek words: hypokrisis, which means to act out a part or to pretend and hypokrinein, which means to determine or judge. These etymologies give us hypocrisy reduced to its essence—acting out a part while passing judgment on others.
Some of you may have heard the comments made by Pastor Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council during the recent floods in Baton Rouge. Perkins, following in the footsteps of other public religious figures such as Pat Robertson, John Hagee, and Jerry Falwell, had in 2015 interpreted Hurricane Joaquin as a sign that God was displeased with our country’s approval of same-sex marriage.
However, as it turns out, Pastor Tony lives in Baton Rouge and his home was flooded in the recent torrential rains. In this case, he chose not to interpret the natural disaster as divine judgment but rather saw it as an opportunity to “take you to the next level in your walk with an almighty and gracious God who does all things well.” Now I have never taken CPE, but I know enough to know that it is not pastorally helpful to criticize the way
Tony Perkins makes theological sense his own suffering. What is open to critique is the double standard, the hypocrisy, at work in Perkins’ theology when tragedy falls upon someone else. The religious leaders as presented in Matthew’s gospel had practically made a living out of hypocrisy. They sustained the perception of their piety by making sure their public practices displayed a scrupulous attention to small details that could be seen by others.
This public persona gave them a platform from which to judge sinners as beneath them, while at the same time, their own behavior—outside of the public eye—did not conform to the most significant parts of Torah. Having said that, we have to confront the fact that hypocrisy is a particular job hazard for religious leaders. You are expected to set an example, to embody publicly the behavior you ask of others, and there is pressure to do this without fault. Our moral and spiritual authority relies on our displaying this particular public self. The temptation, then, is to separate out the public presentation of an uninterrupted surface of piety, while making room for a private self who is cut some slack, who can ignore the rules, who has in some sense “earned” the reward of moral laxity precisely because in public one has had to convey perfection. This is an exhausting and unsustainable way to live,and I don’t recommend it.
I have had more than one friend who was a “PK”—a pastor’s kid or a priest’s kid. These friends often spoke about growing up in a fishbowl, being watched, and having to take care that their behavior reflected well on the family. What was important was how other people perceived them. They might be experiencing all the normal, difficult struggles of family life, but when they opened the door to go outside, they had to pretend that all was well. They learned that you do the right thing as a kid because church people are watching you. Thus develops a particular form of hypocrisy—one not driven by arrogance but driven by fear.
I think this may be the same kind of hypocrisy at work in the disconnect between our online selves, what I call our “hashtag identities,” and our true selves. Social media allows us the opportunity to construct a self who is not necessarily holier (this is where the social media version of hypocrisy differs from the church bubble version)—not necessarily a holier self, but a cooler self, a more successful self, a self who has everything together—who travels, eats great food, goes to the right films, and shows up at the right parties. We do this with our carefully curated Facebook posts; we do it with our Twitter hashtags. I mean, were I actually to use my Twitter account I could easily see myself drawn into constructing a particular hashtag identity:
• “book manuscript just sent off to the publisher” #smart guys with beards
• “helping the kids with homework” #best dad ever
• “chilling in my big green office chairs” #living the dream in Rather House
• “check out my orecchiette with rapini and goat cheese” #vegetarian rocks the kitchen
• and so on.
We live in a time in which surface presentations of the idealized self seem to matter more than the stable presentation of a real self, who works and struggles and succeeds and fails and finally lives by grace. Hypocrisy comes in many guises. Some are calculating and cruel. Some are fearful and desperate. But all of them cut us off from real human relationship. All of them contribute to making others feel inadequate. All of them involve a flight from truth and grace. Woe to us when we mask ourselves with piety or hip-ness or success. Peace be upon us when we trust our true selves to God and one another. Amen.