Being Hypocrites for Lent
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
In a recent Barna Group poll of young adults who don’t attend church, 72% said that they thought the church is “full of hypocrites”. A lot of Christians would take exception to this. We often complain that we really are good people. It’s just that the biased media only likes to report on Christians misbehaving. We get a bad rap because of a few bad apples, but the core of us is actually fine.
It seems like in Jesus’ day, they had the same problem. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. … And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. … And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”
The people who took their religion the most seriously often became the most judgmental and showboaty. They became very externally hypocritical. Later, Jesus would call these kinds of religious people “white-washed tombs” (Matt 22), meaning they looked pretty on the outside but they were dead inside. These are really harsh words for the people who were supposed to be the religious leaders of his day.
The problem we face isn’t that we’re hypocrites. God knows that we are dust. God knows that we sin. The problem is that so many of us have trouble admitting our sin and faults. We prefer to imagine ourselves as “good people” instead of facing the truth that we are still sinners. We have trouble recognizing our own hypocrisy. Like Paul the Apostle, I say I want to do something, but I don’t do. I say I don’t want to do something, but I do it.
That’s exactly why we need Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. God doesn’t need our worship or our fasting. These disciplines are for our spiritual benefit. They are gifts from God. We have the opportunity to acknowledge our faults and wickedness before God and before one another. God will forgive, but in the process of confession, we might also become just a little bit humbler. Throughout Lent, we will pray and worship together and in private, and, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it feels, we’ll continue to confess our sins together and ask God for forgiveness. We can’t change the truth of our sinfulness, but we can be honest together in our prayers and in our community.
Today we are publicly naming our sins and refusing to live into lies about who we are in relationship to God. These ashes are a sign that we’re not good enough without the grace of God. So accept your hypocrisy today. It’s just true. And ask God to help us change. Amen.