April 21st, 2019

gary damronMY PERSPECTIVE, Gary Damron


Last week we referenced a small geographic area in Judea near the Sea of Galilee where much of Jesus’ ministry occurred. This week will focus on some of the messages he spoke, specifically to hypocrites. 

A scripture in Matthew illustrates the concept. “‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…’” (Matthew 6:1-2). Nearly twenty times Jesus uses the word now translated “hypocrite”. 

Hypocrite has become a religious word. But originally it derived from the Greek, “performer” or actor or pretender. There is an ancient ivory figure of an actor holding a mask to conceal his or her true identity. Another related Greek word is “theatenai” from which we get theater. In the days before movie trailers, upcoming plays were advertised by troupes of musicians and actors, parading through the streets. 

Looking at the geography of the place, there were many of the ten cities that formed the Decapolis which had theaters. Each seated thousands, and one was very close to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. Though a young Jewish man would not have attended a theater, he would have been familiar with them. It’s interesting that the floor seating which was for nobles was called the orchestra. This week as we watched the Supreme Court nominee hearings, those seated on the floor had the “best seat” and gave C-Span audiences a clear view of faces, expressions and words. 

Another verse addressed the religious people who put on acts to impress. “‘When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full’” (Matthew 6:16). He didn’t seem to address it when sinners put on masks. But a person claiming to be religious, who dons another identity, sets up the biggest barrier to a relationship with God. 

There was one group Jesus consistently criticized: anyone in leadership who taught a performance-based religion. Pharisees of long ago and folks like them today have several things in common. He quoted Isaiah, “‘Their teachings are but rules taught by men’” (Matthew 5:9). They invent extra rules, complicated and confusing. It’s a dangerous practice to turn our own “personal preferences” into “words from God” meant to control others. 

Religious leaders who are actors may produce passionate commitment to the wrong things. Jesus said, ‘you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness’” (Matthew 23:23). Having neat tidy rules - the more the better - makes it manageable to live a religious life. But grace, and living a gracious life, can be messy and require more from us than we’d planned. 

Finally, living hypocritically focuses on the external rather than what’s inside. “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’” (Matthew 23:27). A legalistic system masks our problems, because it “wouldn’t look good” for someone to know our real self. 

Jesus’ words to the scribes, Pharisees and teachers seemed brutal. One of them responded with an understatement, “‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us’” (Luke 11:45). 

He offered words of hope, however, to anyone who would take off the mask and move from fakery to freedom. “‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 5:3). Anyone who’s broken in spirit recognizes that they need help and can find life in Christ. “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ … For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’” (Matthew 11:28, 30). 

The message is to take off the mask, be transparent and honest, and live free indeed. 

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