The ancient Greeks loved theatre. They enjoyed many genres of theatre, such as comedy, tragedy, and satyr. The Greeks built massive, open air structures that held thousands of people to watch these magnificent theatrical performances. Amateur and professional actors were cast in roles that required multiple costume and mask changes throughout the show. It was even common for men to play women’s roles and vice versa. These actors were known as hypokrites; men and women who assumed the character they were playing on stage. This was not their actual identity; they were pretending to be something they were not.
As you’ve probably already guessed, this is where we get the English word hypocrite. In today’s passage Jesus uses this word to make the clear distinction between a person of sincere faith and a person who is simply acting like they have faith in God. Jesus hits three major areas of the Christian life in these verses: benevolence, prayer, and fasting. In each area we see that Jesus calls out the hypocrites:
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.
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. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
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.
The question is, why the indictment, Jesus? If these people are giving to the poor, praying, and fasting then isn’t that what Jesus wants? Aren’t these actions pleasing to God? The key to what Jesus is saying here comes in the reason Jesus gives in each account. The hypocrite’s purpose for giving, praying, and fasting was so that people would see them and they would receive praise: “Oh, look how pious they are!” “They are the Godliest person I know!” While it wouldn’t have been hypocritical at all for them to do these things if they had clearly expressed to everyone that their purpose was to make themselves look good; their hypocrisy was that they were deceiving people into thinking that they were doing these things for the glory of God when in reality it was all about them. They were actors putting on a theatre, portraying an image and a purpose that in reality didn’t exist.
The implication for us today is a big one. Righteous deeds and religious actions absent a heart that sincerely desires the glory of God, does not please God. Why? Jesus cares about the heart behind the action and not just the action itself. Jesus longs to change us at the heart level, transforming our motives, intensions, and desires. If He were only out to change our behavior then surely in His omnipotence He could do so. An act of kindness, a prayer, a season of fasting that moves the heart of God is one that seeks the utmost glory for God alone. The consequence of hypocrisy is separation from Christ, while the consequence of sincere faith is intimacy with Christ. Jesus is calling us today to seek the latter and delight in the effect that serving Him with a right heart brings: Glory to God and intimacy with Him.
Are there areas of your life right now that you are being hypocritical in? Spend time today repenting of a heart that seeks to glorify yourself and pray for a sincere heart of faith that desires the glory of Christ alone in your life.
By: Matt Mofield