From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Neglected hypocrisy

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 12, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

This past month, while the glorious days of summer were quietly slipping away, I had the pleasure of being treated to an experience of summer theatre: a wonderful production of the American classic Oklahoma! My friends and I spent a fun evening watching the characters on stage play out the roles of good guy and bad guy, and a few in between. There are a few clever twists in the plot of Oklahoma!, but it is relatively easy to spot who stands for good and who stands for evil. Anyone in the audience would know which one to follow.

Every time I watch live drama, my mind wanders back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, for whom the theatre was a common form of entertainment and even education. I look around our modern theaters and wonder if the carpet, lights and metal seats (still collected in semi-circular fashion) will ever be unearthed in some future archeological dig. I wonder if tourists by the thousands will ever come to that spot and wonder what the people were like, what their wants and fears were –and, of course, what kind of antics they watched up on stage.

Thanks to research and careful study, we do know a few things about these ancient people. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Greek drama, for instance, is the role played by the hypocrite. In almost every major Greek drama, one character played a particularly devious role. The actors who played hypocrites – men or women – were watched by the audience with care because those roles often were critical in determining the outcome of the drama.

The hypocrite appeared on stage during the production playing at least two characters: both a true one and another, which was played from behind a mask. Quite often the one behind the mask was up to no good. The audience, of course, was let in on this split personality.

It is this character and what his/her ilk came to represent in society which gives the cultural background even to Jesus’ occasional use of the word “hypocrite” in the Gospels to describe the Pharisees ... and perhaps us, too, as we ourselves walk into those scenes.

Nowadays “hypocrisy” is word used popularly to describe the divide between a pretended external mask of goodness and a hidden font of evil. We call someone a hypocrite who puts on the front of being sweet and nice, but inside is plotting, self-serving and evil. The word is well used and carries on the tradition of Greek drama.

This form of hypocrisy is not a source of entertainment for us. It is repulsive. And it is relatively easy to spot. We reject it, once its reality is discovered. We, too, may at times call someone a hypocrite and mean it! The word fits with all its uniqueness and power. Hypocrisy of this sort is a sin we all should want to avoid for our spiritual welfare.

Something must tell us, however, that Jesus is more than a name-caller, boldly identifying a spade as a spade. Upon further reflection about Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, it becomes more apparent that he has spotted a more disturbing form of hypocrisy. This form of hypocrisy often goes neglected, or at least falls short of serious scrutiny. It manifests itself subtly in others and probably even more subtly in ourselves. After all, we seldom notice our own blindness and sin. All the same, this form of hypocrisy is damaging to our spirituality.

With the luxury of time we often find it easy to judge the Pharisees whose personages peek through the pages of Scripture –or at least, wag our heads and cluck our tongues at the way we think they hide their deviousness with the mask of pretended goodness. Perhaps there were a few situations in which their external goodness masked evil plotting and manipulation, but most likely, the Pharisees generally were good people like us. After all, Pharisee-ism began as a lay spirituality movement which sincerely sought practical ways of living right before God. The Pharisees’ study of Sacred Scripture – especially the first five books of the Old Testament – laid down the Law for such an endeavor.

Because of our popular understanding of hypocrisy, we jump to the conclusion that the Pharisees simply were up to no good. We imagine them as Great Pretenders who served God only in external actions, while being interiorly bad folk. That may not have been the case.

When Jesus summons up the “Woe is You” cry of Israel’s prophets and calls the Pharisees “hypocrites,” there is little evidence of the kind of charge we may expect. The Pharisees were not calling people to holiness and purity, for example, while they ran brothels on the side. Their hypocrisy was of a more subtle kind. It was the kind that acts like yeast in the making of bread, Jesus once noted. It goes unnoticed, but is the force that moves the mass of dough. This is the kind of hypocrisy where there is a disconnect between what is taught or practiced and the reality which the teaching or practice tries to communicate.

For example, Jesus lambastes the Pharisees for fussing and fighting over what kind of tax or tithe to pay on certain herbs and in the meanwhile let their quarrels distract them from their relationship with God. It disturbed him to watch them reduce prayer to the rubrics of proper washing of jugs and kettles. Surely it must have pained him to watch them dedicate their financial offerings to the temple (all in obedience to the Word of God, of course) in order to avoid taking care of their aging parents. They actually thought they were doing good and would have been the first to say that they were God’s obedient, faithful servants.

The Pharisees were an unhealthy yeast for a faith-centered populace which looked to them for example and direction. Worse than encouraging others to act like they acted, they insisted that the path to holiness was found in thinking as they thought. Their arguments were all based on following the marching orders of Sacred Scripture and the “teachings of their fathers,” where they sought safe haven and camouflaged a search for God’s love with psychological security. Sadly, they suffered from the spiritual disease of neglected hypocrisy and, as a result, led themselves (and the people they thought they were serving) away from a living covenant relationship with God.

When this kind of hypocrisy creeps into someone’s life – not just theirs, but ours, too! – real damage is done to the life of the Spirit. The focus of time, energy, conversation and practice betray a preoccupation with things that may be proper and important in themselves, but in the richer perspective of God’s saving love must be kept in their place. Pharisees still walk the face of the earth in our own shoes. When we fuss over whether we genuflect, kneel or bow; receive Communion in the hand or on the tongue; wear this shape of vestment or that; ring bells or not; stand, sit or kneel during this or that prayer; or fight over who can do the dishes at Church – and get so caught in defending our arguments and condemning those who don’t think and act like us – we are Pharisees deserving the prophetic cry of “Hypocrite!” from the lips of Jesus himself.

When small things – especially hang-ups over religious practices – become more important than developing a relationship with God and nurturing a respect for one another as God’s children, we become the hypocrites, the whitened sepulchers and brood of vipers known as the Pharisees of the New Testament.

We all want to do what is right with God – or at least we should. And we all should want to practice our faith with sincerity of heart. However, a relationship with God is a walk in mystery. When we seek out the security of justifying the goodness of our walk because we do all the actions correctly – and insist that others do the same – then we neglect the yeast of Phariseeism that threatens to pervert and corrupt the very relationship of saving grace for which our hearts yearn. Spiritual death comes when we become blind to our quest for security in the worship of things and practices. As Jesus observed, we then join the number of the walking dead and the seeing blind.

The Greeks may have had the luxury of being entertained by the hypocrites who pranced on stage in front of them. Anyone who takes their spiritual journey seriously cannot enjoy the luxury of neglecting the yeast of Pharisee-ism that so often distracts us from genuine spiritual growth.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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