Last week was one of the most exciting of the year for our (Jonathan and myself) family, because it was the culmination of nine months of hard work and much preparation. The homeschool group of which we are a part performed their seventh full length theatrical production. This year Anne of Green Gables was the classic tale that our children masterfully presented. The only way to know what intensive labor such an event requires is not just to attend, but it requires knowing everything that goes on behind the scenes before, during, and after the main event. A multitude of blessings result from this annual occasion, but the spirit of humble teamwork that prevails to get everything accomplished might be my favorite thing that I garner from the play each year.
However, I want to briefly highlight one other aspect that I always find interesting and entertaining from the children as they prepare and especially as they perform on show night. They do a magnificent job, with the help of splendid instruction from the directors, of understanding and presenting an accurate depiction of their assigned character. Sometimes the actor is given a role that matches his/her regular demeanor, but at other times it requires a radical departure from their typical personality. For example, audience members are amazed that one who is usually quiet and kind transforms into one who is loud and angry, if the part demands it. Upon being questioned on how they were able to produce such a compelling presentation that differed so greatly from their usual behavior a young actor simply replied: “Just playing the part.”
While the ability to act differently than you really are is a quality that makes a performer successful in theatre, it is not a trait that God views favorably in relation to our relationship with Him. In fact, you may or may not be aware that the word hypocrite transliterated from the Greek word hupokrite means an actor or stage player. Hypocrisy is the acting of a stage player. Greek or Hellenistic culture loved drama and especially tragedy and comedy dating back hundreds of years before Christ. Works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are performed today centuries after their initial premiere. The early tragedies had only one actor who would perform in costume and wear a mask, allowing him the presumption of impersonating someone he was not.
Therefore, the word is used in a spiritual sense in the New Testament to denote one who is merely pretending to be a servant of God. He or she is merely wearing a face when it comes to their true devotion. Several passages illustrate this powerfully. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned about doing righteous acts like giving and praying in a way that draws attention to the “actor.” Matthew 6:2: “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.” A few verses later: “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” (Matthew 6:5, emphasis added). In response to making self-righteous and critical judgments against others, the Savior chastised the guilty: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). Later in Matthew 23, Jesus issued seven woes or pronouncements of disgust or grief against the scribes and Pharisees whom he labels jointly as hypocrites—Matthew 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29. [If you are reading from the ESV, verse 14 is omitted because it is not in the earliest manuscripts.] Perhaps, verse 27 is the most descriptive depiction of what hypocrisy constitutes: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
Some reading might be discouraged at this point and wonder if they are hypocrites. After all are we not all guilty of sometimes doing things that are not like Christ? Clearly, we all have this struggle. Paul details his battle with himself in Romans 7:14-25.
A crucial distinction is this: the hypocrite is one who pretends to be something he never intends to become. This is the reason we let our little girls play the part of an evil witch or our boys be the bad guy in the play. They are only pretending and they understand that they act that way on stage, but nowhere else. Sadly, some take this same approach to their relationship with Christ. They obey and pretend to placate a spouse, parent, or other family member. They act one way on Sunday, but they leave the Savior in the building and conduct business as usual like the rest of the world Monday through Saturday. This sort of behavior is what the Lord abhors and might also correspond to the lukewarm condition that the Christians at Laodicea were sickening the Lord with, as recorded in Revelation 3:16. No Christian is yet all that we aspire to be in being like Christ, but let us never be guilty of merely pretending to be an actor playing the part or simply wearing a face. Don’t be a hypocrite!