Religious HypocrisyRev. Philip Miller | March 20, 2022
Selected highlights from this sermon
There’s probably nothing worse than religious hypocrisy–people who claim to be all about God, but then turn out to be total fakes. Most people probably don’t realize that Jesus was very first person in recorded history to call out religious people as hypocrites.
Continuing through the Sermon on the Mount, Pastor Miller, will show us three things regarding religious hypocrisy: a profile of what it is, the tyranny of applause, and the freedom of secrecy.
Do you wish to be seen by others or will you live for an audience of One—God?
There’s probably nothing sicker than religious hypocrisy. You know, people who claim to be tight with God, but then turn out to be total fakes. It’s twisted. It’s awful. It’s egregious. Our news is unfortunately full of devastating headlines of religious leaders who turn out to be abusers and womanizers and embezzlers and scammers and predators who disgrace the name of Christ and disillusion entire generations.
And we hear it all the time. “The church is just full of hypocrites.” Have you ever heard that? Yeah, and if religious hypocrisy makes you mad, you are in good company because Jesus couldn’t stand it either. Okay? Amen? Amen. In fact, a lot of people don’t realize this, but Jesus was the very first person in recorded history to call out religious people using the word, hypocrite. Seventeen different times in the New Testament, every single one of them on the lips of Jesus, Jesus uses this word, hypocrite, to call out religious fakery. And so when we worry about hypocrisy, religious hypocrisy, we’re actually thinking in the very lines of Jesus.
The word hypocrite comes from the Greek word, Hypokrites. Can you say that? Hypokrites. Nice, good job! It means actor or stage player. It’s a term from the Greco-Roman theater. You’ve probably seen depictions of the twin masks of the Greek Theater: Comedy and Tragedy. There are two faces, one’s smiling, one’s frowning, next to each other, because actors in the Greco-Roman theater literally would wear masks as they were acting. They’d put on a mask and they’d walk out with a big smile or whatever, and they were playing a part. That’s how acting took place.
So the word, Hypokrites before Jesus, didn’t have a negative or pejorative connotation at all. It simply meant actor or stage performer. No bad connotations. And then Jesus comes along, and literary scholars tell us that Jesus is the one who introduced the word, hypocrite, into the moral vocabulary of world history. When He applied this term to religious fakery, religious leaders, He was calling them out as disingenuous, as false, as mask wearing. He says that religious people can sometimes act in such a way that they are playing a part, that they’re wearing a kind of religious mask and they’re performing for attention.
Look at how He uses it in the passage that we’re going to look at today. We’re in Matthew, chapter 5, verses 48 down to 6:6, and then we’re going to skip down and look at verses 16 to 18. This is all on page 811 there in the pew Bible if you want to use it.
Matthew, chapter 5 and 6 this morning. And let me read these verses to you. Just look at the way that Jesus applies this term. Beginning here, Matthew 5:48: “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now, 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” So there’s the principle, and now He’s going to give us three illustrations.
Verse 2: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Now skip down to verse 16. We’re going to look at these intervening verses next week, but right now, go down to verse 16: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.
This morning, friends, Jesus wants to show us first
The Profile of Hypocrisy, secondly The Tyranny of Applause, and finally The Freedom of Secrecy.
The Profile of Hypocrisy, The Tyranny of Applause, and The Freedom of Secrecy. That’s our outline this morning, but before we jump in, let’s invite the Lord to be our teacher.
Father, this problem of religious hypocrisy is so easy to see in others, but it’s so hard to see in ourselves. I pray that you would help us see our own hearts this morning. We invite you to expose hypocrisy in us. Help us to be righteous like our Father who is in heaven. Teach us. Give us a new heart we pray, in Christ’s name, Amen. Amen.
First of all, The Profile of Hypocrisy, The Profile of Hypocrisy.
The first thing I want you to see here in this passage is how chapter 6 flows immediately out of chapter 5. It’s connected. Chapter 5 ends with “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s 5:48. Jesus, of course, has been illustrating for us the kind of heart of righteousness that is at home in the kingdom of heaven. He’s showing us the kind of true inner goodness that flows from a transformed heart that is made alive in Jesus. This is the kind of heart that Jesus is offering to us. He offers to be our righteousness. He will go to the cross, and die as our substitute, that we might be alive in Him, covered with His righteousness. He offers to lead us into righteousness by His Spirit as He indwells us and leads us in the way of righteousness, and He offers ultimately to transform us into righteousness when we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father one day in glory.
And so this righteous heart is what Jesus is offering to us. It is a heart that is perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. That’s chapter 5, verse 20.
And so far, what Jesus has been doing is illustrating for us the inadequacy of the Pharisees’ teaching concerning righteousness on a whole variety of topics. Now He’s going to shift to the inadequacy of their practices of how they live out righteousness, which is what we have in chapter 6, verse 1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Now every phrase of this sentence is vital to understanding what Jesus is saying. He is not saying, “Beware of practicing your righteousness” full stop, okay? He’s not saying that. Because He just said, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Okay? So He wants us to be righteous. He wants us to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, a goodness of our inner heart that flows out into our outer actions. A healthy tree bears good fruit, and so a righteous heart will practice righteousness. That’s not what He’s against.
He’s also not saying, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people” because remember back in chapter 5, He said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” So He’s not saying, “Don’t ever do good deeds in public.” Jesus expects us to live righteously in the world in a way that would glorify God as other people see our actions. He’s not saying, “You can’t be seen.” What He is saying, it’s in the last phrase, the key idea. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”
Jesus is not against righteousness. He’s not against righteousness that gets noticed. He’s against performative righteousness. He’s against righteousness that intends to be seen and noticed. He’s against the kind of goodness that wants to be seen that is playing to the crowd. In other words, what Jesus is saying is that it is entirely possible to do all the right religious good things, but to do them for the wrong reasons.
It’s entirely possible to do all the right things, but do them for the wrong reason. It’s one thing to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and so love your neighbor as yourself and overflow in all kinds of good deeds in the world. That’s a good thing because you’re letting your light so shine before men that they see your good deeds and give glory to the Father who is in heaven. But it’s another thing entirely to practice our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, to be noticed, to impress them, to get ahead in life, because if we act in the second mode, our goodness is actually contaminated. Do you see that? It’s contaminated. It’s actually full of selfishness, and ego, and hypocrisy. And Jesus says, “Beware.” Be wary of that kind of righteousness that likes to parade itself in order to be seen by other people because it’s a religious death trap and it’s called hypocrisy.
Jesus is now going to give us three examples of what He’s talking about. The first one is giving.
Giving (verse 2): “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, that they may be praised by others.” Let’s stop there.
Jesus is using hyperbole here, a little bit of intentional rhetorical exaggeration. They probably didn’t actually blow trumpets. They walked through the streets to give their offerings, but everyone would have laughed because they know exactly the kind of thing that Jesus is talking about. People who come into the temple, they come in to worship and they’ve got a whole bag of coins and they pour it into the coffers (makes shhh sound), you know? Loud coins ringing, pompous. Everyone’s like “Whoa! Did you see what that guy gave? Oh, Jesus must love him.” You know? They’re doing it for the show. That’s the first picture.
The second one is about praying. The second example is praying.
Verse 5, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.”
There are people who love to be called on to pray at meals, at worship, at public events. It’s an acknowledgement of their religious stature, you know? They relish the honor, the stage, the microphone, the prominence, their place in the body politic. That’s the picture.
The third image here, illustration, example is of fasting.
Verse 16: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
Fasting, of course, friends, is all about cultivating the soul’s appetite for the spiritual nourishment of the presence of God, but you can twist it. You can twist it into a public display of righteousness and be obvious to everyone that you’re fasting. You know you just sort of look hungry and miserable.
“What’s going on? Why don’t you eat something? You’ll feel better.”
“Well, you know, I’m fasting today.”
And Jesus says, “That kind of righteousness that does all the right things, but is doing it to get noticed, that gives, and prays, and fasts in order to be seen, that’s not actually about God, is it? It’s about us.”
Two thousand years later not much has changed, has it? People love having their pictures taken beside billboard-sized donation checks. You know? (Pretends to hold check) Click, click, click, click! Religious elites love it when the newspapers photograph them offering prayers in political institutions. And many of us can’t do a good deed without posting about it on Facebook, or whatever.
Friends, hypocrisy is when goodness becomes virtue signaling. Hypocrisy is when goodness becomes virtue signaling. We’re not being good for God’s sake. We’re not even being good for goodness’ sake. We’re being good for our sake. It’s all about cultivating our image, managing our brand. We find a way to look and act and speak and be where people will think well of us, where we will fit in, where we’ll come out on top. And we will be affirmed, and adored, and applauded. That’s the very profile of hypocrisy. It’s like an actor with a mask working the crowd, playing to the audience. It’s a problem.
And now Jesus turns His attention to The Tyranny of Applause,
The Tyranny of Applause. This is when we play this game of religious hypocrisy, when we do good in order to build a kind of good image so that we will have good applause in response from others, that’s all we get out of it. That’s what He said again and again. Verse 2, verse 5, verse 16: “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.” “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”
You think that kind of righteousness is the kind of righteousness that God rewards? Think again. The human applause you receive, it may feel like you’re gaining the whole world, but in fact, you’re losing your soul. Because human applause is actually tyranny in disguise.
Three ways that it’s tyrannical:
Number one, it’s inauthentic. It leads to inauthenticity. When we do good in order to be noticed by other people, we’re saying and doing what other people expect, right? We’re not being real. We’re not authentic. We’re not true. We’re playing a game. We’re giving people what they want. We’re donning a mask. It’s a charade. We can do it out in the world. We can project a certain version of ourselves, and so, “Look at me, affirm me, like me!” Or we can do it at church too. Wear certain clothes, say certain words, do certain actions, just fit in and look all “Christiany”! And it’s a mask. And underneath, in secret, you know better. You know it’s fake and so does God. So does God.
The second problem is it’s addictive. It’s addictive. When we constantly play to the crowd, we are at the mercy of its opinion. Do you know that? We’re constantly at the mercy of its opinion. Whatever the crowd wants, that’s what we have to give it, and so we become addicted to the applause, and it sets us up to fail because if you live for approval, you will die of rejection.
And the third thing is it’s idolatry, it’s an idolatrous situation. Because when we are being good, so that we can craft a good image, so that we get good human approval, Jesus says, “That’s all the reward you’re going to get.” You get this human applause, but there’s no reward from our Father in heaven because we can do all the right things but do them for the wrong reasons. We can give offerings, say our prayers, fast religiously, but what we’re really doing is worshiping an idol, the idol of human opinion and applause rather than doing all of these things out of love for God. And God sees that and He sees the duplicity of it. He says, “Look, if you are looking at the crowd, you’re doing all this righteousness, you’re doing it with eyes on the crowd, not Mine; if you want their affection, not Mine; if that’s what you really want, okay, fine. Then that’s your reward. I can tell when I’m not wanted and I’ll leave you alone.”
And here’s the scary thing, friends. It’s entirely possible to go all throughout your life, attending church, reading your Bible, saying your prayers, giving to the poor, doing good even in the name of Jesus, and you can gain social status and honor, you can become a pastor or an elder or an honored church member; you can be praised and recognized as good and admirable and godly, and yet never do any of it out of an overflow of love for God.
This is sobering. Jesus looked at the Pharisees, who were the most religious people you could ever imagine. They memorized more Scripture, they went religiously to synagogue, they were the religious elite, and He said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will say, “Many will one day say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not do all these good things in your name?’ and I will say to them, ‘Away from me for I never knew you.’” Friends, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. We need more than this.
Do you realize this is radical stuff? The Christian understanding of sin is that sometimes we even have to repent for our righteousness, because we can do all the right things but do them in the wrong ways. We need more than just a good image. We need a good heart. We need more than just a good image. We need a good heart.
A good image rewarded with human applause will never cut it. We need a righteousness that’s greater, that’s exceeding all of this, that’s pleasing and acceptable before God. We need a heart that is made right in the kingdom of heaven that lives in The Freedom of Secrecy, The Freedom of Secrecy. Jesus is once again offering us a new heart, a new heart alive in the kingdom of heaven. If we will come to Him, and believe in Him, and follow Him, He will give us a new heart by the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to follow Jesus into the abundant life of the kingdom of heaven. Now what does that look like?
Verse 3: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Remember friends, Jesus is not laying down a new Law. He’s illustrating a new heart. He’s not laying down a new Law. He’s illustrating a new heart. He’s not saying that if someone finds out about your giving, it’s null and void, it doesn’t count. That’s not what He’s saying. He’s saying, “I can give you the kind of heart that gives, not to be noticed by other people, or even to pat yourself on the back. Your left hand, your right hand, don’t even know. Nobody cares who gets credit, left hand or right hand. You’re not even thinking about it. I can give you the kind of heart that is undistracted in its loving affection for God and God alone where you are simply His child, and He is your Father, and He sees your generous love, and His delight is all that you need. I can give you that kind of heart.”
Verse 6: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Again, not a new Law, but a new heart. He can give you the kind of heart that seeks the face of God. It doesn’t matter if anyone else knows about your prayer life. You are a beloved son or daughter of God, and He is attentive as your Father, and there’s nothing that matters more than simply being with Him.
Verse 17: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Again, not a new law, a new heart. “I can give you the kind of heart that hungers after God, that cultivates an appetite for Him and Him alone, that isn’t starving after the attention of humanity, but is satisfied by God who is the strength of your heart and your portion forever.” In other words, “I can give you the heart of a child delighting in the smile of our Father.” That’s what He can give you, the heart of a child delighting in the smile of our Father.
Friends, do you realize if you have, listen, all the smiles of Earth can never compare to the smile of heaven. Amen? And if we have the smile of our Father, then we can face the frowns of anyone because we know His pleasure rests upon us.
Friends, do you realize that on the cross Jesus forfeited the smile of God so that we might live in the Father’s smile forever. Do you realize that on the cross Jesus bore our sin that we might be made righteous? Jesus faced the wrath of God that we might be embraced by His mercy, so that as sons and daughters of God, friends, we have nothing to fear, and nothing to hide, and nothing to prove? And so we can quietly go about our righteousness without show, without fanfare, without drawing notice, simply in a quiet, unassuming goodness of childlike faith. You say, “Look, Daddy, look what I did. It’s for you.”
When I was a kid I used to play soccer. I was little. I’d run out and I would score a goal, and I’d run back and there was cheering. I was so excited. I would always look for my dad on the sidelines beaming, cheering me on. And as I got older, I continued to play soccer, and it started becoming about the trophies, and the tournaments, and the scholarships, and the newspapers, and the crowds, and it just ruined the game for me, because it became all about pressure and performance and proving myself. And I lost the beautiful simplicity of a heart of a child delighting in the smile of his father.
I just lost it. Friends, the same thing can happen with religion, with morality, with religious goodness. We can twist it and it becomes ultimately about social acceptance and a moral track record, or spiritual notoriety, or ministry achievements, or popular recognition. It’s all about pressure and performance and proving ourselves. And into that space Jesus is inviting us, calling us back to the beautiful simplicity of the heart of a child delighting in the smile of our Father.
As Jesus will say later in Matthew, “Unless you turn and become like a little child, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
“Come. Come. Trust in Me. Follow Me, and I will give you a new heart, the heart of a child in the kingdom of your Father who has nothing to fear, nothing to hide, nothing to prove. I can give you the kind of heart that lives in a kind of quiet, unassuming goodness of childlike faith.”
“Just look, Daddy. Look what I did; it’s for you. It’s for you.” And your Father who sees in secret will reward you because He sees you, and He knows, and He smiles and it will be enough. It will be enough.
So here’s the takeaway, friends. Will you dare to live for an audience of one?
Will you dare to live for an audience of one?
I got this phrase, “audience of one” from Os Guinness in his book, “The Call,” where he’s describing the Puritans, the 16th and 17th century Christians who lived, as he says, as if they stood before the audience of one. The Puritans knew that all the smiles of Earth were nothing compared to the smile of heaven, and that if they had the smile of their Father over their life, they could face any frown in their way. And they faced a lot of them, but Jesus is saying, “If you come to Me, I will give you a new heart that dares to live for an audience of one, with eyes only for our Father, to see His smile and know that it is enough.
“Look, Daddy, I did this for You. It’s all for You.”
So how do we live this out this week?
Do something Jesus-like, and don’t tell anyone. Keep it secret. This is the brilliance of Jesus’ instruction here. If you do something righteous, do something good, do something that would normally impress other people, and just don’t tell anyone. Why? What does that do? You’ll find that your heart wants to break silence (laughs) and it shows how much you’re living for the applause of humanity rather than the smile of God, so don’t tell anyone. Don’t post about it on social media. Don’t get up at 6:00 a.m. and get your Bible out with a cup of coffee and, like, Instagram it. Like, I mean, we’re all probably a little guilty of that, right? Good grief. Don’t even think too much about it. You’ll find yourself going, “That was a really good thing I did and I kept it secret. God must be really impressed by me.” That’s the left hand and the right hand talking about it, okay? Just stop that. Don’t even think about it. Just let it go into the background. Just do something good. Trust that God sees it and ignore it. It’s harder than it sounds.
Jesus is teaching us how to exercise our souls in the habits of actual genuine righteousness. It’s not tainted by human approval and applause and all the twistedness that we can make religion into. He’s teaching us the habits of a heart that is righteous before God. The Spirit will lead you in that. He will guide you into this kind of righteousness so that the quiet smile of heaven begins to eclipse the thunderous applause of humanity, and knowing that our Father who sees in secret will reward us, it turns out to be just enough in the end for our souls. Don’t you want that?
Let’s follow Jesus, friends. Let’s follow Him.
Would you pray with me?
Father, this is so practical. It’s so down to Earth. I’m amazed at the insights of Jesus. I really shouldn’t be, but He is brilliant. He sees down into the convoluted taintedness of our souls and all the weird ways we can take religion and turn it into something that’s all about us.
Father, we want to know you. We want to see your face. We want the intimacy of quiet, still, secret worship, unrehearsed, unplanned, spontaneous righteousness. That’s what we need. We need a new heart. We need a new life on the inside.
Father, teach us to live in the power and presence of the kingdom of heaven, following our Jesus, obeying the Spirit, walking in His power and presence and guidance for your glory and the smile of heaven. Teach us to live in this freedom we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. Amen.