“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:46-47)
Our Lord often rebuked religious leaders for their hypocrisy and, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us find these passages to be the most engaging (if not entertaining) segments of the Gospel narratives. This is because, for the most part, we intensely dislike hypocrites. Few things are as profoundly offensive, hurtful, and damaging than that of a man who lives in a manner which is inconsistent with his ideals. Perhaps even more unsettling is the man who performs great deeds for impure, self-edifying, reasons; like the Scribes and the Pharisees who put on the show of true devotion but were, as Jesus so eloquently pointed out, simply motivated by vain conceit.
We dislike hypocrisy because we are made in the image and likeness of God, and hence, have an innate desire for what is real. Not only are our cognitive faculties aimed at discovering truth and our hearts built with a longing for truth; but Truth Himself is in love with us and desires to be in a real relationship with us. It is because we were made to be in the truth that we all have a natural distain for hypocrisy–for at the heart of hypocrisy is dishonesty and falsehood: unreality and untruth.
Yet, we have grown accustomed to hypocrisy–especially to the sort of empty religious posturing so common among Christian leaders. We have grown accustomed, for instance, to discovering that the Senator who’s entire career was built on conservative Christian values has been using campaign money to fund his rather distasteful habit of sleeping with male prostitutes. We are quite used to hearing about the pastor of a mega church who has been absconding with church funds. We grow cynical and begin to suspect that every idealist or religious fundamentalist is merely a phony used car salesman (I deeply apologize if you are reading this and happen to be an honest used car salesman).
As we grow more cynical we also grow more antagonistic towards anyone or anything that smells of hypocrisy. This is especially true among Christians–at least the ones in my generation. We want authenticity, we want honesty, we long for leaders and laypeople who are truly devoted to the cause of Christ. We justifiably long for these things–and Jesus longed for these things too–but, without even realizing it, we become fixated, almost exclusively, on the external world without examining our own hearts. We are so busy uncovering and condemning the hypocrisy around us that we forget to look for and condemn the hypocrisy in our own lives.
St. Francis De Sales noted that the great majority of religious devotion we observe in the world is simply an empty show:
“When the messengers of Soul sought David, they found only an image in his bed, which, being dressed by Michol in David’s garments, deceived them so that they imagined it to be David himself. Thus many persons clothe themselves with a garb of external devotion, and the world believes them to be really devout and spiritual, whilst in truth they are mere statues or phantasms of devotion.”
What we often fail to consider is that our own religious devotion might just be a statue or phantasm of devotion. My challenge today is for us to stop focusing on the hypocrisy of others and focus, instead, on our own hypocrisy; for us to sincerely examine our own hearts; to take stalk of our motives; to root out any inconsistencies (and I guarantee you will unearth them if you look deep enough). The fight for authentic Christian faith begins when we examine our hearts and seek to free ourselves, through the power of the Holy Spirit, from self-love. It begins when we develop a sincere love for God in our own hearts and work through the sin and ugliness in our own lives. My advice to my generation: stop attacking the mere ‘phantasms’ of religious devotion we see around us and focus on becoming an authentic self-giving lover. Make true devotion to Christ your own personal goal and not merely another catch phrase or bumper-sticker slogan.