In one of the stories in The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes about a ghost woman who has taken a bus from hell to heaven to visit her son. Upon arriving in heaven, she encounters the “Bright Spirit” that her earthly brother has become. Through the course of their dialogue, the Bright Spirit attempts to explain to his sister the necessary requirements for making her visit permanent. She must concede the reality that her natural motivations while on earth were hurtful to others and self-serving. Her brother explains, “…no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” If his sister fails to come to terms with this crucial understanding she cannot become a citizen of heaven, she cannot see her son, and she must return to hell. Despite these incentives, the woman refuses to accept the possibility that her motivations could have been anything but pure.

Many factors—good, bad, conscious, and unconscious—contribute to our motivations. The Bible is preeminently concerned with our hearts and the values and beliefs that motivate our behavior. In his gospel, Luke records Jesus addressing this essential issue with His disciples:

Under these circumstances, after so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they were stepping on one another, He [Jesus] began saying to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy…” (Luke 12:1)

Luke records that Jesus observed the crowd—one so large that, in their attempt to get closer to Him, they were literally stepping on one another. Luke also records Jesus’ comments regarding the dynamics in the crowd; he writes that Jesus warned His disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” Luke’s account gives us a great vantage point from which to better understand the historical context, because, as Luke records it, Jesus’ exhortation is a direct response to His observation of the crowd. Rather than giving us a simple historical narrative of Jesus interacting with someone, Luke gives us the opportunity to understand this particular moment in history through the eyes of Jesus.

Jesus observed a dynamic operating in the lives of the people gathered around Him. As they pressed and stepped on one another to get close to Him, they were making known something about themselves that concerned Jesus, and Jesus responded by warning His disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”

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 live inconsistently with the very beliefs we assert. The New Testament, however, clearly does not characterize the Pharisees as insincere or pretentious. They were a religious organization of dedicated men who banded together in small, independent groups to educate and encourage one another in the observance of the Mosaic Law. The Greek word Luke used (translated “hypocrisy” in English) originated in Greek theater, and it described 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 assume his character’s persona. He would try hard to know and understand the character—what the character thought, what he felt and believed, what was important to him. While on stage, a good actor attempted to be as much like his character as humanly possible. The actor’s goal was to win his audience’s approval and applause. One of his greatest fears was that the audience might reject him if his performance failed to be compelling or convincing, and he would experience humiliation, embarrassment, ridicule, and shame. Thus an actor’s desire for applause and his fear of rejection motivated him to invest a tremendous amount of time and energy into developing his craft and preparing for a performance.

The “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees was that they approached life much like an actor approached the script of a play. Motivated by the desire for approval, the Pharisees performed a specific set of predetermined and mutually agreed upon religious acts before an audience of their peers.

Herein lies the fundamental problem with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: their obsession with the appearance of their performance gave them the means to hide from the truth of their own brokenness. Their outward performance distracted them from coming to grips with the internal problem of their moral depravity. Consequently, the Pharisees’ religious zeal was a symptom of their hearts’ rebelliousness rather than a reflection of their desire to love God.

Their hypocrisy enabled the Pharisees to focus on how good they looked on the outside. Working diligently on their pre-approved script distracted them from noticing their internal motivations and the condition of their hearts. Their efforts to present a persuasive performance gave them the means to deceive themselves. In Luke 12: 2-3, Jesus warned His disciples that hiding through acting does not work:

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.

In verses four and five, Jesus connected the motivation of the actor with the motivation of the Pharisee: one feared failing before an audience; the other approached religion motivated by “the fear of men” rather than “the fear of God”:

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!

Like actors motivated by fear, the Pharisees had a perverted desire to be respected and revered by their human audience—a desire that preceded their desire to please God. Jesus warned His disciples against this motivation.

What can we conclude from Luke’s account of Jesus’ warning to his disciples?

First, Jesus connected the crowd’s behavior to their motivations. Luke records the fact that Jesus observed the people’s behavior (pressing and stepping on one another in order to get close to Him), and he records Jesus’ comments concerning it. These comments reflected Jesus’ understanding and insight of the crowd’s behavior, which He likened to the hypocrisy that characterized the Pharisees’ lives.

Secondly, without Luke’s record of Jesus’ comments, our understanding of what motivated the crowd’s behavior would probably be very different. Some critical pieces would be missing from our interpretation; for example, we might understand the crowd’s behavior to only signify their desire to move closer to Jesus. Yet, as Jesus points out in His comments to the disciples, the hypocrisy He observed in the crowd was motivated by “the fear of men.” Jesus caught that moment in time like a Polaroid photograph and held it out for His disciples to see and understand. And with his pen, Luke gave us the same opportunity to see and understand the crowd’s behavior and motivation.

Thirdly, when the crowd acted as they did, pressing and stepping on one another, they spoke volumes about themselves. Although they appeared to be interested in what Jesus had to say, in truth they were most interested in appearing interested. They were performing a role—like the Pharisees.

Finally, the Pharisees were mistaken about themselves. They perceived themselves as righteous, godly men striving to do what they believed God required, as men who took their relationship to God very seriously. Thus they looked at their disciplined religious behavior and concluded that they were doing life right and were, consequently, in God’s favor. In truth, however, the Pharisees were rebelliously blind to the sinful motivations of their hearts. Taking great offense whenever Jesus called them “hypocrites,” they strongly rejected the notion that their behavior was motivated by a perverse desire to be respected by men. Like the woman in Lewis’ allegory, they were unwilling to concede that they could be wrong or selfish. Both the woman and the Pharisees purposely focused on the appearance of their outward behavior in order to avoid facing the corruption of their internal state—even though their eternal destiny hung precariously in the balance.

Because we still struggle with sin in our lives, we are caught in the same moral predicament. We all find it very difficult to see ourselves as being wrong, and we easily blind ourselves to the motivations of our heart by focusing on what we think we do right. However, as Jesus’ warning about the Pharisees’ hypocrisy reveals, our apparently virtuous and noble behavior may indicate a rebellious heart more than it does our love for righteousness or God. If we remain unwilling to examine our true motivations—and consequently our profound need for mercy—we may share the eternal destiny of the woman and the Pharisees.

In conclusion, we must take to heart Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees. We must not let our acting seduce us into believing we are something we are not. We must not assume that our upright and decent behavior necessarily reflects the motivation of our hearts. We must concur with the Bright Spirit in Lewis’ allegory when he says to his sister, “That’s what we all find out when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.”