What is hypocrisy?
In this post I want to think about how hypocrisy could describe a situation where two sets of values could produce the same outward outcomes (actions) with a high degree of overlap. Hypocrisy is about the convergence and divergence of value systems and actions within a particular context.
Within a particular set of parameters, one action could be enacted for multiple motivations. One could view the same action and interpret a multitude of reasonable but mutually incompatible drives at play. When two or more value configurations can rationally produce in the same context a high number of identical acts, you have the possibility of “hypocrisy” arising.
In one case, individual A with value set A could perform 99% of the acts which individual B with value set B would perform in that context. This means that individual A could be mistaken for an individual with value set B. If individual A does not correct this mistaken perception, individual A can rise in prominence and influence within a community of people who act on value set B. Individual A may either be intentionally not clarifying the confusion because they are seeking power and influence, or they may believe that the value set A which they act on is the true teaching of the community. Perhaps some people who do genuinely act on value set B in that community are acting on an interfering value set C which is causing strife within the community, such that individual A comes to see value set B as an enemy to the community.
So, what is Jesus doing when he’s talking about hypocrisy? He’s identifying the 1% of acts which betray the fundamental difference between the value sets. Because the value sets are configured differently, the only way to expose a hypocrite is to identify where the two value sets would produce divergent results. Then, you insert a wedge into the gap to expose the underlying division between the two value sets and their attendant outward actions.
Jesus’ miracles of healing performed on the Sabbath serve as these “wedge” actions which blow wide open the gap between his value system and the value system of the Pharisees. Their value systems are configured differently, but they both purport to keep the Law. Jesus shows the Pharisees’ actions of keeping of the Law to be predicated on a fundamentally different set of values (conformity to Law as punishment/reward rather than Law as Love). He does this by performing an act which outwardly breaks the Law according to the Pharisees’ interpretation, but which keeps the heart of the Law, which is love of God and neighbor.
In order to discover hypocrisy, we have to ask ourselves: where do my value configurations produce outwardly godly actions without godly intentions? At these symptomal points, we will discover where our value systems are misaligned with being a disciple of Christ. Only there will we discover how God’s grace overwhelms the weight of sin, and leads us through repentance into new life.
Upon discussing this post with my girlfriend, she noted that I overlooked a crucial element which we associate with hypocrisy. Hypocrisy involves a disconnect between the agent’s value set and their self-reporting about their value set. In short, they lie about their motivations.
I do think this element is lacking from my account, but upon reflection, I realized that I had left it out because I took the Pharisees to genuinely believe that they were good Jews. Perhaps I am wrong about this in some or many cases, but the Pharisees strike me as sincere about believing they are following the Law. I take Jesus’ point to be that the Pharisees do not truly understand what it means to follow the Law, and that Jesus is calling them to keep the Law by becoming his disciples.
And yet, I also worry that this softens us too much towards the Pharisees. Jesus’ continued denunciations of them, in particular as ‘hypocrites,’ focus on the mismatch between their outward actions and their inward motivations. “You clean the outside of the bowl but leave the filth within,” and “you are like white-washed tombs, outwardly beautiful, but inwardly full of the dead.” This is something I will need to wrestle with more.
If we file down the sharp edge of Jesus’ warnings to the Pharisees, we run the risk of failing to learn the lesson he sought to teach, and instead perpetuating the same cycles Jesus vehemently condemned.