These days we have very little tolerance for hypocrites, that is, people who don’t practice what they preach. And this is good! We should be challenging others, and ourselves, to be authentic and virtuous. Jesus calls us to “live in the truth,” and criticized the legalistic scribes and pharisees as hypocrites (See Mt. 23!). But when it comes to Jesus’ call to “be perfect” we all fall short. The real question isn’t whether you’re a hypocrite but what kind of hypocrite you’re going to be. As we move into the Easter season we can meditate on three very different paths.
On Palm Sunday, before processing to the altar at the beginning of Mass, the priest reads the Gospel account of Jesus entering Jerusalem: “...they took palm branches ...and cried out: ‘Hosanna! ‘the king of Israel…’” (John 12:12-13). In the congregation, we hold palms, identifying with the crowd celebrating Jesus’ arrival as their King. Then we read the Gospel where the same crowd is gathered: "[Pilate said,] ‘Then what do you want me to do with the man you call the king of the Jews?’ They shouted again, ‘Crucify him’" (Mark 15:12-14).
Within the same Mass, “the crowd” is shown worshiping Jesus and then calling for His execution. Jesus has not changed His teaching in this time. So why the sudden change in response? There is a line in the same Gospel that explains, “the chief priests stirred up the crowd” (Mark 15:11). These priests were not happy with Jesus and had a few reasons for wanting him gone, and unfortunately, the crowd seems easily swayed by their rhetoric.
A person who goes with the crowd is a hypocrite because they are easily persuaded and because of this can be fooled by leaders and ideas masquerading as the truth. Jesus says that “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). If we are praying regularly and really seeking the truth, we will be able to recognize who speaks for Christ and where He is calling us.
The Church always affirms the dignity of the individual and the unique way we are called to live in Christ. At the end of Mass the priest or deacon often says, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” acknowledging the different vocations and missions of those gathered.
Pope Francis warns against, “making idols of abstract truths...and law,” as the Pharisees did. Sometimes we can make idols of celebrities or ideas, ignoring the ways they may make us more self-righteous or un-Christian. Christ ate with sinners, listened to his followers complain, and forgave those who betrayed Him. If we abandon this orientation of personal connection and compassion we risk being swayed away from truth by a political party, a social media movement, or people in power with nefarious agendas, just like the crowd.
Maybe the biggest hypocrite we think of during Holy Week is the man who betrayed Jesus. Judas Iscariot was a follower of Jesus and, being one of the twelve apostles, a close friend. Reading scripture, we understand Judas struggles with a preoccupation with money, a vice that will lead him to trade his Savior for the equivalent of a few hundred dollars (Mt. 26:47-19).
Unfortunately, Judas doesn’t offer us a very good example of how to redeem our hypocrisy either. Instead of facing what he has done and asking for forgiveness he tries to undo his mistake by giving the money back to the priests who paid him for Jesus’ life:
“Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.’ They said, ‘What is that to us? Look to it yourself.’ Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:3-5).
Judas lets healthy guilt, which tells us when we’ve messed up, sour and turn into shame and despair. When we sin we act in contradiction to that which we believe and proclaim, and we all sin! Feeling guilty makes us aware of this hypocrisy so we can do something to correct it. One of the lies we’re told by the devil and sometimes ‘society’ is that once we make a mistake we are not worth saving, forgiving, or having new life. Jesus tells us he did not come into the world, “to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).
Especially in the digital age, where we all can have a voice, It can be a temptation to berate and demonize people when they make especially big mistakes. However, if we aim to be like Christ, neither should we condemn them but encourage them to face what they done, make reparations where necessary, and seek forgiveness. This doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to evil but that we seek to transform it, giving others the same opportunity at conversion we should afford ourselves.
Perhaps the best example of how to be a “good hypocrite” can be found in the person of Peter. One of Jesus’ closest followers, Peter makes a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, letting his eagerness to impress Jesus get ahead of his his spiritual maturity. This pattern comes to a head when Jesus warns His apostles that their faith will soon be shaken. Peter, right on cue, assures Jesus that his faith not be shaken and he will die for his Lord rather than deny Him. When put to the test mere hours later, Peter is quick to deny Jesus three times before abandoning Him in shame.
Often we have big ideas about what we can accomplish or withstand in the name of something we believe in. But what happens when we are inevitably disappointed? Though Peter runs away fearing for his life, unable to watch his friend suffer and die, he doesn’t lose hope. We find him gathering with the other apostles, clinging to the community Jesus gave them.
When we fall short or become overwhelmed with the task of living the Christian life do we seek out community within the Church? It is through this community that Peter hears the tomb where Jesus was laid is empty. That flame of hope within him propels Peter to run to the tomb, not knowing what to expect, but perhaps imagining his Lord waiting, to forgive him and give him new life.
Eventually our risen Lord does appear to Peter. After spotting him as they fished, Peter jumps into the sea to swim to Him on the shore. They share a meal together and three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” I imagine as Peter affirmed his love to the friend he had betrayed he was overcome with emotion, but Jesus is not just offering catharsis. Each time Peter says, “You know I love you,” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” And then, alluding to the way Peter will be martyred, he says, “Follow me.”
When we come to God with our failures seeking forgiveness He is quick to give it to us. But that forgiveness is not just for ourselves. In healing our hypocrisy, it transforms us into missionaries of His truth and love. Just as Christ calls Peter to take the love they share and use it to serve the Church, so He calls us to forgive others as we are forgiven and to lay down our lives for our friends.
Hypocrisy vs. Humility
Before his Passion, while preaching in Jerusalem, our Lord gives us the antidote for hypocrisy: humility. Jesus begins His scathing rebuke of the hypocritical Pharisees by addressing the crowd, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23:12). Humbly acknowledging we are sinners does not excuse our inevitable hypocrisy but prepares us for it. When we encounter a failure in humility we are less likely to be devastated and emptied by despair. Instead we are filled with hope. The hope of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection.
Anthony Esser lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey, and daughter, Noelle. After serving in various ministry roles from Ohio to New Orleans and three years at the National Shrine, Anthony now works in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Washington. Besides writing for THR, he paints portraits, cooks Italian food, does stand-up comedy, and walks his dog on the boardwalk near his home. When he’s not causing a ruckus he loves sitting with the Lord in adoration.