You and I hear this next phrase probably once a week: “I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.”
I have always wanted to reply, “Well, just go and make one more.”
That is not really nice, and it is too snarky by half. When we hear this line, it is obvious that the speaker doesn’t have a clue as to what the word “hypocrite” really means. And it is just as obvious that the speaker is bitter about something that is just as much his fault as it is everyone else’s. Or he is just defensive about his own fear of spiritual realities.
If you absolutely must respond to this worn-out and trite complaint, I suggest you try on this line for size: “The church isn’t full of hypocrites, but it is full of sinners, and I’m one of them. That is why we all go to church, because we need healed by grace, by prayer and sacrament.”
That may or may not work, but it is true.
And such a response spotlights the huge confusion that surrounds the word “hypocrite.” Most of the time when I hear or read this word in popular speech, it seems that what is being complained about is not “hypocrisy,” but “inconsistency.” We Christians are called to practice virtues and to deny the impulses of our passions. Frequently, we fail the commandments to love God and to love each other “as ourselves.” Some days we do very well at love, self-denial and giving mercy: once in a while we do not, and thus we are inconsistent.
And when others see this failure, they like to call it “hypocrisy.”
It is not, of course. When a Christian fails, he is guilty of sin, not hypocrisy. And when someone sins, we are called to forgive such trespasses. Sin requires repentance and restitution and remediation, and it needs forgiveness and restoration.
Hypocrisy is different. It is not inconsistency -- if you want a more correct term, I suggest “incongruence” rather than inconsistency. Hypocrisy actually turns out to be very consistent. Sin, hopefully, is not.
What I mean by “incongruence” is that in hypocrisy, there is a horrible “disconnect” between what is expressed on the outside, and what is actually going on inside -- in the heart. In describing such a nasty disconnect, Jesus once called the Scribes and Pharisees a bunch of “whitewashed selpuchres” -- that is, tombs that looked pretty on the outside, but filled with decay and corruption on the inside.
The Lord condemned the hypocrisy of these politically powerful men. What he condemned, interestingly, was not their sinfulness in general (which they denied). Instead, Jesus denounced their contradiction. In their hypocrisy, the Scribes and the Pharisees reduced religion to a “mask” in the way that trick-or-treaters don plastic faces of Superman or some Disney princess on Halloween.
Notice that these men were not just religious, but were politically powerful. They had turned religion into a business of commodification (e.g., moneychanging in the Temple, and the wretched practice of "corban" and tithing mint and dill), and power-mad domination (e.g., Saul stoning Stephen and hauling Christians off in chains). My point here is that modern sensibilities have restricted the meaning of hypocrisy to "religion," when in reality it is an existential term. Hypocrisy belongs to power.
The hypocrites who were denounced so scarily in Matthew 23 (“woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” the Lord said again and again, paki paki) had pushed religion to the surface and did not let it go any deeper. They had denied the main purpose of religion -- which was for a person saying yes to the Holy Spirit incorporating him or her into the Body of Christ, thus becoming godlike, a child of God the Father.
Hypocrites, as you might imagine, will have none of this.
Hypocrites are addicted to the outside. They cannot stand the inside, the precinct of the heart. They are invested in the fiction that God is distant and wrathful, and find the idea of damnation (that is, of other people) quite appealing. Ultimately, they’d prefer that God not exist, because power and domination are what they are really interested in, not at all true religion.
Hypocrites do not, by definition, ever really pray. They cannot pray because they refuse to repent -- prayer always requires the sacrifice of ego. A hypocrite would never do that. A hypocrite loves his ego but hates his own soul.
The church has always had problems with religious hypocrites: that is old news. There will always be charismatic preachers who rake in millions from their impoverished TV fan base, and take these widow-offerings to buy private jets, yachts, mansions with swimming pools and -- I kid you not -- golden faucets and toilet seats.
That is, as I’ve said, nothing new. We should not be upset by this.
What is new, however, is the arrival of “non-religious” hypocrites. Hypocrites of this sort deny any spiritual reality, but at the same time demand that you accept their "valuations," or their definitions of what is good or important. Hypocrites of this sort put a price on everything and, because they deny anything special about humanity, even put human life up for sale. Think here, in this regard, the practice of pornography, where women are turned into objects for profit. Think of fertilized embryos or fetuses that are discarded because they are not viable or valuable. Think of corporations who pay lip service to democracy, but extort government at all levels and profit from cultural decadence. Or think of real hardworking people who are denied a living wage.
“Non-religious” hypocrites have even changed the definition of “freedom.” Freedom, in this modern secular hypocrisy, now means “freedom to choose,” or “freedom to purchase and own,” or “freedom to change the TV station” or “freedom to be whatever kind of individual you want to be.”
However, “Freedom,” says Holy Tradition, means “freedom to be, freedom to become.” Certainly not freedom to choose.
For us, such freedom is found only in deification -- a life that starts in liturgy and never ends in an infinite ascension into Beauty Divine.
That sort of freedom a hypocrite -- religious or non-religious -- just cannot stand. The sharp irony here -- which is kind of funny -- is that the only ones who call the Church “just a bunch of hypocrites” are hypocrites themselves.
So. I think there are far more non-religious hypocrites than religious ones. In fact, there may be no authentic "religious" hypocrites because a hypocrite will not really pray.
And, you and I will have our problems with inconsistency.
It is true.
We are sinners, to be sure.
But we may not be hypocrites.
Which is far, far worse.