1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
The weather has turned a bit cooler (and then warmer, and cooler again), so that means a change in clothes. I recently dusted off my old sweatpants and dug my slippers out from under the bed because it can get pretty chilly at night.
One morning I was making lunches for the children while I was still wearing my sweatpants and slippers, and I realized that our compost bucket was very full and needed to be emptied—mostly because it was getting pretty stanky. So I put on my jacket, slipped on some shoes, and ran the kitchen scraps out to the compost pile. When I came in, I took off my coat, slipped into a more comfortable thermal shirt, and changed from my outdoor shoes back into my slippers. And in that moment, I simply blurted out, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
My kids just looked at me like I was a fool.
But you know who I unintentionally was pretending to be. I was Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood. At the beginning of every episode, Mr. Rogers would come in the front door singing, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor…” When he entered the t.v. house, he would take off his coat, hang it in the closet, and put on a cardigan sweater. He would also take off his hard-soled dress shoes and put on some tennis shoes. The idea was that he was coming home from work and ready to interact with the children out there in t.v. land. And he always put his shoes away and hung up his coat so as to set a good example for the boys and girls who were watching.
This practice actually began when Rogers was first getting into television. He would dress nicely for the children’s show that he hosted, going to work in a shirt and tie, dress pants, and dress shoes. But he soon found out that his dress shoes were too hard and squeaky for his show because he was constantly moving back and forth out of site as a puppeteer. So he would be on one side of the set acting as King Friday and then have to quickly move over to the other side of the set to play the part of Daniel the Tiger. And as he would go from side to side, you would hear “thump, squeak; thump, squeak; thump, squeak.”
Wanting to look like a professional, Rogers decided he would wear his dress shoes to work, and then change into sneakers just before the cameras went live. And this also allowed him to enter into character, with a change of shoes he went from Fred Rogers, mild-mannered PBS employee to Mr. Rogers, a man with an odd number of make-believe friends.
Fred Rogers was the very definition of a hypocrite.
Now that I have your attention, we can begin.
Today we are going to be talking about hypocrites, and please note that I am back to preaching from the lectionary, so I didn’t choose this scripture or write this sermon with anyone in particular in mind. What I want to look at today is What is a hypocrite? Who is a hypocrite? and How can we become the realest version of ourselves?
So just what is a hypocrite? Jesus throws this term around quite readily in Matthew 23, using it six times in this chapter alone. The Greek word is ὑποκριτής, hupocrites, and it is a compound word made of the word hypo and krino. Hypo is the Greek word for under, and it is the opposite of hyper. Hyperactive means that someone is overactive. Hypoglycemic means that someone has low blood sugar. Krino means to judge or make a pronouncement. Put it all together and we find that a hupocrites is one who judges or makes a pronouncement from below or behind something.
Hupocrites is the Greek word used for an actor, which is why I can call Mr. Rogers a hypocrite and only feel mildly guilty for it. If you think of actors from years ago, they are often depicted as wearing a mask, which conceals their actual identity and allows them to enter into a different character. As that character, they make pronouncements. So in the most literal sense, an actor is a hypocrite and a hypocrite is an actor. They are pretending to be someone that they really aren’t.
My second question is Who is a hypocrite? I mentioned that Jesus uses this word six times in Matthew 23. He must have been living in Hollywood, or maybe he was hanging out locally at the Shakespeare center. He was clearly surrounded by hypocrites. In the verses immediately following our text this morning, Jesus repeatedly says, “Woe to you, you hypocrites!”
Let’s look at the actual quote from verse 13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” The Torah instructors and the Pharisees did not moonlight in the theater; Jesus is using this word metaphorically, and he is using it as we generally understand the word. Jesus is calling these religious leaders “actors.” You stand there, behind your masks, and you make pronouncements upon these people. But you yourselves are far from what you pretend to be.
Let’s back up to verse 3. Jesus says to the people about the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees: “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
First let’s notice that Jesus says that the people should do what they are saying. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees aren’t trying to mislead the people into doing bad things. The problem isn’t that these leaders are telling the people to abuse their relationships and ignore the poor all while worshipping other gods. No, Jesus says to do what they say. Just don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they preach.
Here’s how I understand Jesus’s criticism. It’s okay to ask difficult things of people, Jesus did it all the time. Remember, that whole love your neighbor thing is no walk in the park, and loving your enemy is potentially even more difficult! Don’t get angry? Don’t lust? Jesus asked some very difficult things of us, so the problem isn’t that. The problem is asking or demanding that people do something that is challenging, and then not doing it yourself. Perhaps even worse is demanding these challenging tasks on the part of the people, not doing it yourself, but pretending like you are doing it.
That’s where the whole mask thing comes into play. This is why Jesus accuses them of being actors, of being hypocrites. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are demanding strict ethical behavior from the people, but then they fail to act that way themselves, and yet they pretend to have it all together. They are simply acting.
Let’s jump ahead to verses 5-7: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”
Here are a few external manifestation of the Hebrew faith, put on display for all to see. Remember that the phylactery is a box that contains little scrolls of scripture in it which is strapped to the forehead or arm of a practicing Jew. This practice comes from Deuteronomy 6, a part of scripture called “The Shema,” which includes instructions to tie the commandments of God to your arm and your forehead.
Jewish men were to also wear a prayer shawl (tallit) over their heads when they pray. The tallit is to have tassels (tzitzit) that hang down so that the praying person can see them, and remember all the commandments of the Lord (Numbers 15:37-40).
Look at me, with my big phylacteries and long tassels. I’m a child of God!
No, these hypocrites didn’t cover their faces with masks, but they did cover themselves by other means and pretended to be someone and something that they really weren’t.
Jesus emphasizes the religious leaders in this passage, but let’s be honest, we can all fall into this practice. It is probably easier for those of us who are clergy because we stand up every week and tell you what we believe is right and wrong, and that is available in writing and via audio recording. So if I ever say something and get caught doing the opposite, you can go back and show me exactly what I said and when I said it. James 3:1 reminds us that not many of us should be teachers because we will be judged more strictly. More strictly by God or by others? The scripture doesn’t say, but my guess is “yes.”
Many clergy people have been accused of being hypocrites, and rightly so. There are way too many clergy who preach about giving to the poor, and then fly off in the private helicopters; too many clergy getting caught in inappropriate relationships after preaching monogamy.
These are the public figures who get caught, the teachers and the preachers. Yet there are many actors out there, and we are probably all guilty of putting on a mask every now and then, pretending to be someone we are not. This brings me to my third question: how can we be the realest version of ourselves? I’ve got three sub points.
I think that no matter what your occupation, we need to continue to proclaim the perfect example of Jesus Christ, but also admit that we fail. 1. We proclaim the perfection of Christ, not ourselves. That’s not a license to fail, but just me being honest that I do fail. I’m not perfect, and I’m not going to get into the details of my failings here and now; if you really want to know about my failings, just ask my family. They well aware of my imperfections! But just like everyone else, I want people to think well of me. I want people to like me. I want people to respect me. I maybe even want people to be a little bit jealous of me. So in all cases, I try to put my best self out there.
There is the person who we want to be, and there is the person that we want other people to think that we are. Just look at social media and you will see people trying to put an image out there by posting the most glamorous pictures, witty articles, and beautiful projects. And it is okay to try to do better. In fact, I would say that God wants us to try to do better. God isn’t expecting perfection from us. But God also doesn’t need us to pretend to be someone that we aren’t.
That’s one reason I really enjoy the movement to just be honest and genuine online. Check out the pinterest fails sometime at https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-pinterest-fails/. We don’t need to pretend to be someone we aren’t, and we can even have a good time celebrating our humanity.
I think a large part of life is just trying to figure out who you are, and being the best version of that person you can be. 2. Be the best version of you that you can be, where you are, when you are there.
My overseer, Beryl, told me that when he first started at his last church he was a 37-year-old with a wife and two young children at home. He was serving in a large congregation and there was a lot of demand on him for his time and energy. He was leading a team of pastors, teaching Sunday School, preaching regularly, and attending ballet practice, soccer games, and story time at the library. I know some people can keep their work and home lives separate. When that 5 o’clock whistle blows, you drop whatever you are doing and go home for the night, not giving another thought to your work until 8 the next morning. Some people can do that better than others, and some jobs lend themselves to that better than others.
But sometimes it is hard to differentiate between work and home lives. When a part of your job is to care for other people, you don’t just stop caring at 5 pm. So one thing that Beryl did was that he wore a tie to work every day, not just on Sundays. Then when he got home, he took his tie off. While that tie was around his neck, he was on the job, answering emails, returning phone calls, planning worship, and visiting the sick. When that tie came off, he was a father and a husband.
So, is my overseer a hypocrite? Careful, now! No, he isn’t a hypocrite. He isn’t pretending to not be a pastor in one situation and a father in another. He really is a pastor and a parent at all times. What he is doing is he is living into each role different amounts a different times. And by differentiating his roles, he was able to be better at both, rather than just getting skating along in either role.
My friends, I’m going to tell you something that we tell our children and that your parents probably told you, and that you have probably heard your entire life. Just be who you are. Be yourself. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You don’t need to put on a mask and be an actor to get people to like you or respect you. And if there are people who do require that of you, they aren’t worth the energy. 3. If people don’t like the person God created you to be, love them, but don’t worry about impressing them.
Whether you are at work, home, or even in the church, be who you are, warts, failings and all. Sure, try to improve and try to do better. But don’t try to be someone that you aren’t, and don’t make other people feel bad if they can’t live up to the expectations that you can’t live up to yourself.
I think that might be what Fred Rogers meant all those years ago when he said, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”