Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Avoiding Hypocrisy

A friend of mine (who is not a believer) recently shared a conversation overheard between someone she knew to be a Christian and a senior citizen in their care. The Christian was shockingly abusive in her treatment of the elderly woman, interjecting her venomous accusations with vulgar language and hate. Outraged, my friend told me, “She’s such a hypocrite. She goes around thinking she’s holier than anyone else and at the same time treats someone so cruelly.” The body of Christ holds no interest for my friend in light of the hypocrisy she observes in its members.

It’s a sobering thought. But even my unbelieving friend would admit she herself does not live up to her own standards. We all fail to live out our standards. What is the difference between that and being a hypocrite? We need look no further than the pages of the New Testament to find the answer.

The most prominent and influential religious leaders of Jesus’ day were the Pharisees. It was a society which came into being during the Exile, when the majority of Jews lived on foreign soil, relocated by conquering armies. Knowing the exile was a judgment from God for disobedience, once back on their own turf, the Pharisees vigorously promoted adherence to both Mosaic and Oral Law. They were determined to keep Israel from making a repeat mistake.

Unfortunately, their strict observation of the Law quickly became a source of pride. Josephus, a Jewish historian of Jesus’ day, described the Pharisees as “a body of Jews who profess to be more religious than the rest.” Jesus identified the dichotomy of their standards. “Woe to you Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness.” He also told a story about a Pharisee who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisees failed to see the imperfection in themselves and so felt free to condemn others.

Jesus warned his disciples about the temptation to judge: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye, and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” We are hopelessly inadequate to judge when we are as guilty as those we condemn.

There are two steps to becoming a hypocrite. First, refuse to take an honest look at how you have failed to keep a standard. Second, judge someone else on that standard more harshly than you do yourself.

How do we avoid hypocrisy? We need to keep a realistic view on our relationship with God. “By grace you have been saved, not of works… lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9) We all began our standing with God on the same playing field: dead in our trespasses and sins. Our relationship with God is based on Christ alone. After saving us in a selfless act of mercy, God continues to shower us with grace as we live out our salvation. Any good we do is done through His power. We exist through the merciful grace of God.

Knowing our own debt to grace should impact how we view others. They are in need of God’s mercy, just as we are. Rather than standing in condemnation, we should respond in empathy to their imperfection. We are all in the same boat.

Jesus told a parable about a servant who owed a huge debt to the king. The king demanded payment, and told the servant to sell himself and his family to repay the debt. The servant begged for mercy. The king, moved to compassion, acquiesced. The servant then turned around and revealed his ungrateful heart by throwing a peer into jail for a far smaller debt owed him. The other servants were outraged. How quickly he had forgotten the mercy he had so recently received!

How can we gratefully accept grace from God for our failures and weaknesses, yet turn around and condemn others for theirs? As recipients of mercy, our lives should be marked by compassion and a willingness to extend grace to those around us.

“Brothers, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Galatians 6:1-3

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