Many a story begins with, 'Two fellows…’ and that is how one of Jesus's stories began. Two fellows went up to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). The Pharisee...said this prayer to himself....” Indeed! - to himself in every sense of the word. God was called in only as a witness to the man’s self-righteousness. Imagine the company that such a person must be! - how boring! Well, neither can it be much fun for God to listen to such talk. But the tax-collector at the back is more human, softer, simpler. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” In Greek it says "me the sinner." He thought he was the worst of all sinners, that is why he stayed at the back, and that is why God’s heart, and even ours, is open to him.
    We are at our worst when we pretend to be good: when we dress like angels to do the devil’s work. Hypocrites are the real atheists, because they inflate the currency of religion and make it worthless.
Bobbie Burns wrote:
          God knows I’m not the thing I should be,
          Nor am I even the thing I could be,
          But twenty times I rather would be
                      An atheist clean
          That under gospel colours hid be,
                     Just for a screen.

    The “leaven of the Pharisees,” hypocrisy. It’s very easy to write about, and there are wonderful things written about it! Excuse the many quotations, but it’s very enjoyable. Shakespeare called the hypocrite “a goodly apple rotten at the heart,” and Thomas Hood, referring to jackdaws (“daws”) on the church spire, but referring really to the clergy, wrote,
            A daw’s not reckoned a religious bird
            Because it keeps a-cawing from a steeple.

    But perhaps the most thoughtful words were those of the 17th-century Frenchman, La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”
    The Greek word from which we derive 'hypocrite' means 'to play a part'. From there it came to mean an actor in a play. And from there it came to mean anyone who is insincere in speech or action. Incidentally the word 'person' also has a stage connection. This one came from Latin, per (through) and sonare (to sound). In ancient times actors wore masks over their faces, and 'spoke through' them. In this strict sense, every person is an actor hiding his or her real self and displaying a mask that makes them look like a great hero or a god. Words change their meaning with the centuries, but human nature doesn’t change very much!
     Jesus didn’t hesitate to throw around the word 'hypocrite' - presumably because it was the right one! I counted fifteen times he used it in the gospels. In case there was any doubt about who he meant, he said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" The scribes were the experts in the interpretation of religious law; the Pharisees, in close alliance with them, were a group who saw religion simply as observance of law. In the heat of controversy Jesus told them they were like "whited sepulchres, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27).
What was it about them that he condemned?
          a) Their harsh exclusiveness. When he sat down to eat with tax-collectors and                sinners they objected (Matthew 9:11; Luke 5:30); when he allowed a prostitute to                put oil on his feet, they objected (Luke 7:39).
          b) Their legalistic rigour, particularly about not working on the Sabbath. For                example, when some of Jesus's followers rubbed a few heads of corn in their                hands, blew away the chaff and ate the grains, the Pharisees claimed that this                was breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:2).
          c) Their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. They placed human traditions above the                word of God (Matthew 15:6), "the doctrines they teach are only human                regulations" (Mark 7:7).
    Does this sound familiar in some strange way? Yes, the stuff that went into the making of the Pharisees is still universally available! We have to say to ourselves,
"Thou art that man!"




Donagh O'Shea OP

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.