(A sermon based on Matthew 23:1-12 & Philippians 3:12-21 for Sunday, May 2, 2010)
A few years ago, not long after news about a prominent Christian leader’s moral failures broke, I was watching a televised discussion that involved, among others, Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson. Matthews was lamenting the hypocrisy of the situation. I was agreeing with what he was saying. It is, after all, terribly damaging when a Christian leader is found to be saying one thing and doing another.
Besides, hypocrisy is a problem that the Gospels tell us was addressed often by Jesus. Indeed, in the balance of Matthew 23, Jesus over and over uses the phrase “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” It really is a problem when we Christians, and especially we Christian leaders (who run the greatest risk of playing the role of modern-day scribes and Pharisees), pretend to be something we are not, claim to be better than we know we are, or hold others to a higher standard than we are willing to apply to ourselves—all of which are characteristics of a hypocrite.
But then Tucker Carlson said something very interesting. He said, “I’ll speak in defense of hypocrisy.” My ears perked up. I was prepared to disagree. Then he explained himself in words like these: “The best of us are hypocrites. If we can honestly say that we are living up to our ideals, then our standards are way too low.”
That got me to thinking. Maybe the ones of us who are in the saddest shape are those of us who are too satisfied with ourselves because we are aiming too low and settling for too little in terms of the standards we are trying to reach. I’m reminded of a book that Lewis Grizzard wrote that was entitled, “Shoot Low, Boys—They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.” Maybe too many of us are aiming at Shetland Ponies when we should be aiming at Clydesdales!
The hypocrisy that is dangerous is arrogant hypocrisy. And we can be arrogant only when we are aiming too low. We can be arrogant about the state of our lives but only if we are willing to believe that far too little is possible and if we are willing to accept far too little progress in our lives.
We aim too low when we are harder on others than we are on ourselves. Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3). Those leaders did not do what they taught others to do. Since they taught others to do certain things, we can be sure that they expected those people to do those things. But, Jesus said, they did not expect the same of themselves. Do you ever find yourself excusing yourself from being and doing what you know God wants you to be and do but at the same time being hard on others for their failures?
Do you ever practice the hypocrisy that says “I’m ok” but bases that evaluation on the acceptance of standards that are lower than those you apply to others? Then you’re aiming too low.
We aim too low when we settle for adoration by others of our outward goodness. Jesus pointed out that some of the religious leaders of his day did what they did to be seen by others. Now, sometimes, if you do good, you will be noticed. Such is inevitable, ordinary, and acceptable. But if your motive for doing good things or doing right things is to be noticed by others, then you have a problem. Jesus had much to say elsewhere about doing your good works to be seen by people. If you do so, he said, you already have your reward; it is better to do your good works in secret and to be seen by your heavenly Father who will reward you in secret.
You really can fool some of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time—but you can fool God none of the time. Do you let yourself be rewarded by the adoration of others?
Do you ever practice the kind of arrogant hypocrisy that says “I’m ok because everything that everybody sees of me makes me look like I’m ok”? Then you’re aiming too low.
We aim too low when we value reputation over service. Some of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, loved to have the seats of honor and to be called by respectful titles in public. They had good reputations and people responded to those reputations with signs of honor and respect.
Again, there is nothing wrong with being respected for who you are and for what you’ve accomplished. But the point of being a Christian is not be looked up to and admired and given positions of honor. The point of being a Christian is to be a servant. Our Lord is the one who gets the highest honor, and he earned his place by giving his life up. We are to be servants to one another and servants to the world.
Do you ever practice the kind of arrogant hypocrisy that says “I’m ok because everybody treats me like I’m ok even though I don’t give myself up for others like Jesus told me to do and showed me how to do?” Then you’re aiming too low.
We aim too low when we focus on self rather than on Christ. Maybe this arrogant hypocrisy all boils down to being more interested in feeling good about yourself than in anything else. Paul said about his opponents in Philippi that “their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). We get in trouble when we let ourselves be governed by our appetites, and most of us have a powerful appetite to feel good about ourselves, to be looked upon positively by others, and to be able to think that we are better than others. Therefore, we are tempted to set standards that we can meet or we find a way to excuse ourselves for violating our standards.
Do you ever practice the kind of arrogant hypocrisy that says “I’m ok because I’m satisfied and fulfilled and because I can excuse my moral lapses because they make me happy?” Then you’re aiming too low.
The hypocrisy that is defensible and even necessary is humble hypocrisy.
My sermon title says, though, that I want to speak in defense of humble hypocrisy, not of arrogant hypocrisy. What’s the difference? Arrogant hypocrisy is self-centered and is willing to accept low standards so that you can feel good about yourself.
Humble hypocrisy is not like that. It never claims to be more than you are. It is never satisfied with where you are. It admits and lives in light of the fact that you have a long way to go. It is rather a hypocrisy that readily admits that our lives don’t yet match the terms that we use to name them (Christian, disciple of Christ, child of God), that our lives don’t yet come up to the ideals that we profess. And it never accepts low standards because its standard is Jesus Christ himself.
Think of it this way. When I say that I am a Christian, am I making a hypocritical statement? In a way, I am. To say that I am a Christian means that I have trusted in Christ as my Savior. I’m pretty comfortable with saying that, although I have to admit that my trust is not always what it should be. But to say that I am a Christian also means that I am a committed disciple of Jesus Christ, that I am dedicated to living life in the way that he modeled for me. I fall short when it comes to that. I say it anyway, and really, I mean it. That’s what I want to be and to do. But I have to admit that I have a long way to go.
Paul said that he had not yet reached the goal of knowing the full power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. “But,” he said, “I press on to make it my own…. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12b, 13b).
We are heading toward heaven but right now we live on earth—as people who really belong in heaven. We are heading toward complete maturity and transformed bodies that will be ours in the resurrection but right now we have to live in immaturity and in incompleteness on earth—as people who really belong in the full presence of Christ.
Our standard is a heavenly one. Our standard is a holy one. Our standard is Jesus Christ himself. We never live up to it but we are always moving toward it. We live in faith and confidence that he will one day make us all that we are supposed to be and now we do our best in his grace and power to be all that we can be.
Are we rid of self-centeredness? Are we rid of self-interest? Are we rid of all the things that stand in the way of living as Jesus did? And listen to this, the really crucial and central question: are we centered and focused on the cross? Are we growing in our willingness to sacrifice and to serve? Are we willing to accept suffering for Jesus’ sake? Perhaps we’re making progress, but we all have a long way to go.
And so we are hypocrites. We are not all that we claim to be. We do not live up the standards that we should accept for ourselves. Again, if we are living up to our standards, we are aiming too low. But we need to be humble hypocrites. We are saved by the grace of God, we are forgiven by the mercy of God, we are claimed by the love of God, and it is the grace, mercy, and love of God that will see us through.
Let us admit who we are, praise God for his grace, and move forward in discipleship!