Several years ago during college, I debuted in my first, last, and only play. A friend, who was a communication and drama major, directed a one-act play for his senior project. The play, to be performed in a theater before a paying audience of our peers and other guests, was a unique experience because my friend enlisted his friends to play the roles rather than recruiting anyone with prior acting experience. He reasoned that if he could successfully direct a cast of people with no acting experience, his accomplishment would all the more demonstrate his directing skills, thus impressing his professor and resulting in a good grade. My friend’s plan involved some risk, but he reasoned that the risk was worth the potential reward.
The play, “Sorry Wrong Number,” was about a husband who had taken care of his bedridden, nagging wife for many years. The husband, having become very bitter and resentful of his wife, hires a gangster to kill her. I played the gangster.
At that point in my life, I had never considered myself gangster material, so imagining myself playing the part of a gangster was somewhat difficult. Understanding my dilemma, and wanting his play to be successful, my friend gave me some directing advice. He told me that any good actor who hoped to play his role accurately and persuasively would try to take on his character’s personality as much as possible. He suggested that we go to a gangster movie and observe an actor playing the role of a gangster. He asked me to pay close attention to how the gangster talked, his tone of voice, how he carried himself, how he felt, how he saw life, and what moved him to do the things he did. At the next rehearsal, my friend instructed me to remember the gangster in the movie and find a part inside myself that could identify with him. I took my friend’s advice and prepared for the play. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in front of all the people watching the play, and I wanted my gangster role to be persuasive.
In Luke 12:1-5, Jesus issues a very serious warning to his disciples about approaching life in the way that my director friend advised me to approach my role as a gangster in his play:
Under these circumstances after so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they were stepping on one another, He began saying to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. And I say to you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!
In our culture, we typically think of ‘hypocrisy’ as not practicing what we preach. We understand hypocrisy to be the pretense involved in telling other people how they ought to conduct their lives while we do not live consistently with those beliefs ourselves. Hypocrisy is asserting one thing and doing another and not being honest about it.
Jesus is exhorting the disciples to beware of the hypocrisy that characterized the lives of the Pharisees. However, it is clear from the New Testament that the Pharisees were not insincere, pretentious people. They were not men whose lives were characterized by false pretense. They were highly moral, deeply religious men who lived consistently with their own beliefs. The Pharisees were a religious organization of men who banded together in small independent groups for the purpose of educating and encouraging one another in the observance of the Mosaic Law. Josephus, a respected first-century historian, describes the Pharisees as “having the reputation for excelling the rest of the nation in the observance of religion.” He goes on to say that it was “the accurate interpretation of the Mosaic Law, and scrupulous adherence to it,” that characterized the religiosity of the average Pharisee. So the Pharisees were not hypocritical people in the way we understand hypocrisy. They were very sincere, genuine men who took their relationship with God very seriously.
Historically, the word translated ‘hypocrisy’ has its origins in the Greek theater. The term was used to describe an actor, one who performed a role, portrayed a character, or acted out a script in a play. A good actor, if he hoped to portray his part accurately and persuasively, would try to take on his character’s role as much as possible; he would put great effort into knowing and understanding the character he was portraying. The goal of the actor’s performance was to win the approval and applause of his audience by presenting a compelling presentation of his character. This desire for applause motivated actors to work many long, hard hours developing their craft. One of the actor’s greatest fears was that his audience might reject him if his performance wasn’t compelling or convincing.
The Pharisees approached life and their relationship to God similarly to the way the actor approached a script when he acted a role on stage, similarly to the way my friend advised me to approach my role as a gangster in his play: this was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In the play of life, the Pharisees acted out a particular script, one entitled “How to Act Like Righteous and Godly Men.” Their script told them what was right to do and what was wrong to do. There are, however, three problems with hypocrisy: (1) it is antithetical to faith; (2) it is incredibly self-deceptive; and (3) it distorts true goodness.
Hypocrisy is Antithetical to Faith
The Pharisees believed that because they acted like righteous men–that is, they conducted themselves like they thought righteous men ought to conduct themselves–they were righteous men. In other words, for them righteousness was simply a matter of putting effort into acting according to a prescribed code of behavior, or “script.” Like the actor who counted on his efforts to win the applause of his audience, the hypocrite acted a role and counted on his performance to gain approval before God.
What God wants from us, however, is faith. God wants us to trust Him to rescue us from our individual and personal unrighteousness, to save us from the insidious disease of our hearts and wills that enslaves each of us to sin and death. While trusting God to save us from our sin involves pursuing righteousness, our efforts toward that end offer no guarantee of moral success on demand. The apostle Paul describes this reality in chapter seven of Romans when he discloses his own experience of desiring and striving to do the right thing, but not having the moral character to pull it off. In response to his moral dilemma Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death?” Is not Paul’s cry for help an expression of faith in the midst of moral failure? What a difference between the faith Paul manifests here and what so many Christians in the evangelical world have come to understand faith to look like. Paul’s acknowledgment and open confession to his readers of his struggle with sin and his need for God to save him ought to be an example of faith to all Christians for all time.
Many Christians have come to believe that it is reasonable for a person who is trusting God to expect not to struggle with sin. Paul’s point in disclosing his own struggle is to instruct his readers of the true gospel and its message that sin is a much bigger problem than we can solve with our wills. This insidious disease has infected our hearts and wills such that we cannot save ourselves from our sin. Trusting God to save us from our sin, as exhibited by Paul, is inherently more valuable to God than our conforming to any script or code of conduct, regardless of how hard we may try or how good our performance may look on the outside.
Hypocrisy is Self-deceptive
Just as my director friend suggested that a good actor, if he hoped to portray his part accurately and persuasively, would try to take on his character’s role as much as possible, the play-acting of the Pharisees had led them to identify themselves with their role of “acting righteous” to such an extent that they came to believe that they were righteous men because they “acted” like righteous men. The Pharisees had lost sight of the fact that their acting was just that–acting. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer in Luke 18:10-14 dramatically illustrates this phenomenon. After asserting his adherence to his script, the Pharisee declares himself to be “not like other people.” Although he doesn’t realize it, the Pharisee is mistaken about himself. He is self-deceived. In truth he is exactly like other people. This Pharisee identified himself with the role of what he thought a righteous man should do, with the result that he believed he was a righteous man because of his performance.
Hypocrisy Distorts True Goodness
The person acting out his “righteousness role” inevitably has a distorted view of what is truly good or moral. Many Christians have been so seduced by the glitter and the appeal of the promise of living a victorious life that they have confused the performance of a much lower standard of behavior with genuine righteousness. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with this reality in Matthew 23:23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
The Pharisees, as a institution, had defined the religious discipline of tithing as righteousness while they neglected justice and mercy.
In warning His disciples about this approach to life, Jesus likens the hypocrisy of the Pharisees to leaven. Leaven is a small lump of fermented dough set aside for producing fermentation in a fresh batch of dough. This small lump has the amazing ability to spread insidiously through the new batch of dough causing it to rise. Jesus is saying that hypocrisy is like leaven: a powerful, insidious, irresistible force.
Hypocrisy, acting out a role of righteousness, is not what God wants from us. God is not observing us like an audience would scrutinize an actor; He is not applauding how well we perform our “righteousness script” or even how sincere and genuine our performance is. God is not impressed by unrighteous people who have only done a good job of play-acting righteousness.
The promise of our inheritance as believers is actually to be righteous people from the core of our beings. Our hearts and wills will be completely transformed. God will give this gift to those who are trusting Him to save them from their sin; He will not give it to people who have approached life like actors and who are counting on their acting performance to win God’s approval.