“You hypocrites”! This is how Jesus addresses the Scribes and Pharisees. This is Jesus’ response to their criticism of his disciples not keeping Jewish customs; customs which were highly scrupulous and had little spiritual or religious value. In fact these customs were dangerous. They did not honour God. They led to lip-service. Words and actions which did not come from the heart.
“Hypocrite” is originally a Greek word, meaning actor. In classical Greek actors wore masks. If an actor had three parts in the same play, he didn’t have to change his clothes for each different parts but he had to change his mask. A hypocrite was an actor who wore different masks. So you can see how the word hypocrite came to mean the attitudes we put on; especially false attitudes; professing beliefs, feelings or virtues we don’t possess.
The Scribes and Pharisees had collected an endless number of pious practices, which earned them the reputation of holiness. In their actions and in their hearts, many of them neither honoured God nor loved their neighbour. Hence Jesus calls them hypocrites; in the harsh words of Saint Matthew “whited sepulchres“, “blind guides”. You never got through to them; only to the mask they wore.
To some extent in our democratic culture hypocrites are denounced. Some succumb to the persistent probing of the Guardian newspaper; others fall foul of the Daily Mail’s irrepressible ire. But what about us? Could Jesus rightly say to us, “You hypocrites?” My suggestion is that we hold a crucifix in our hands, sit before the Blessed Sacrament or alone in our private room; begging Jesus to reveal any element of self-deception in our lives; begging him to show me clearly if in any way I am living a lie; asking for rigorous honesty. We want an eye-to-eye relationship with Jesus that will melt our hardness of heart, our duplicity, so that Jesus can “nurture in us what is good.”
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Ian Tomlinson SJ