Jesus as Critic of Hypocrisy, Then and Now

If Jesus walked among us today, performing the same kind of ministry he did in first century Judea, he would probably be a religious reformer and social critic, not a typical evangelist. His target today, as it was then, would be hypocrisy of leaders whose actions are not consistent with professed beliefs. The equivalent of the scribes, Pharisees, priests, and Romans of Jesus’ time would be prominent ministers and their intolerant and extremist political allies.

The point of the lifestyle and message of Jesus was to build a movement that lived the Torah ideals of loving God and one’s neighbor as an essential component of advancing the present and future kingdom of God. The social criticism for which Jesus was known was very dangerous even though he did not try to undermine political authorities. He called out religious and political leaders for failing to live by values they claimed to represent. The problems Jesus saw were caused by hypocrisy, not ignorance. His lifestyle and message should be a model for his disciples in our time as well.

First, Jesus lived an itinerant life, choosing to teach, heal, and exorcise in the villages of rural Galilee and Judea as he avoided the cities of the political and religious elite. This is information everyone knows but the significance of which is often misunderstood.

Since returning from Babylonian Exile, Judaism was associated with centralization of political and religious life in the temple in Jerusalem. Like other societies of the time, small ruling elites dominated about 90% of the population using cities and temples as instruments for centralizing power. Focusing ministry on the common people outside the headquarters of the elite would be recognized as a potential source of rebellion, especially if the practices favoring elites of cities and temple were questioned. Talking about the present and coming just rule of God resonated with commoners who experienced injustice as elites enjoyed lives of privilege.

The itinerant lifestyle implied criticism of the values of scribes and Pharisees in particular. They enjoyed popular respect among the common people. Pharisees represented an ideal of extreme piety by extending holiness associated with the temple into daily living and scribes were the official interpreters of what the Torah required. Jews went through ritual bathing and changing clothes as purity requirements before entering the temple. This was necessary because God resided in the temple and people had to come as close as possible to removing uncleanness in preparing to enter God’s holy presence. By extending strenuous purity rituals to daily life, scribes and Pharisees were recognizing the presence of God everywhere and the consequent need to be holy in all aspects of life.

Daily life for ordinary manual laborers brought contact with things that violated purity. Some degree of independence from the dirtiness of working for a living was required to maintain purity ideals. The difficulty of living by such a lofty standard won respect among common people. In the glow of their success at holiness and public respect, Pharisees could also be self-righteous in looking down on those who were unable to follow their rigorous ideal.

The very lifestyle chosen by Jesus showed little concern for the separateness purity required. Jesus was a practicing Jew who observed the Sabbath and kosher requirements; but he objected to the pride, self-righteousness, and pettiness of criticisms by scribes and Pharisees as he emphasized serving God through ethical action more than ritual observance. Jesus did not criticize purity in temple worship; however, extending temple purity to normal life resulted in focus on oneself rather than on ethical behavior toward others. His emphasis was on serving God through actions that recognized the rule of God now and helped prepare for complete realization of God’s sovereignty and justice in the future. Present and future depended on actions now.

A second aspect of Jesus’ criticism was to expose hypocrisy in failing to live by acknowledged ethical standards. This form of criticism was very Jewish in that it focused on actions rather than beliefs. In fact, not following professed ethical beliefs was the essence of what was wrong in Jesus’ time.

Then, as now, the Torah was the guide for Jewish life; and the Ten Commandments were the foundation on which the Torah and subsequent commentaries were based. Those commandments fall into two parts: how to love God and how to show love of one’s neighbor. The heart of Jesus’ criticism was that religious authorities failed to demonstrate love of neighbors by appealing to phony versions of loving God. Time and again Jesus pointed to what people did as showing hypocrisy, for their actions neglected or abused fellow human beings in the name of pleasing God.

Evidence for this view is seen in many parables, especially the one about the Samaritan heretic who helped an injured Jew after orthodox religious officials ignored him. (Luke 10:25-37) A common thread in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and Luke’s version on a “level place,” is a demand for actions rather than words. (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6:17-49) The primary emphasis is clear in a summary injunction at the end of Matthew’s account: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.” (Matthew 7:24; echoed in Luke 6:49)

Finally, how does Jesus’ social criticism apply to our time? My view is that the comparison of religious and ethical problems is clear to those who “have eyes to see.” (Matthew 13:15-16) Are there religious leaders who express dedication to God as they ignore human need or actively injure those in need? Do they insist on religious purity as they interfere in personal decisions of people to force moral choices in line with their own more righteous standards? Do the lives of these leaders show the economic situation of most common people or do they enjoy material success and live in gated communities with the most prosperous in society?

Today many religious leaders are truly the blind leading the blind. (Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:39-40) How can they not see their blatant violation of Jesus’ standards? Jesus is not recorded to have said anything against LGBT lifestyles or abortion. That is understandable because those were not hot issues in his time. But Jesus said plenty about judging others, about self-righteous use of moral standards to hurt others, and especially about paying attention to how people treat others as the strongest evidence of loving God. How is it possible that religious liberty means the right to force one’s own moral choices onto groups of people, thereby allowing a wealthy few to deny health choices to multitudes who need the excluded services?

How is it possible that so many evangelical leaders live in mansions, pointing to prosperous and large congregations as marks of divine approval, as they support political leaders who deny medical coverage to the neediest? How can these ministers endorse the grotesquely immoral and even illegal behaviors and policies of Donald Trump? Would Jesus approve of religious freedom as an excuse for persecuting LGBT people and eliminating abortion as a personal medical choice?

Today we know that gender orientation is not a moral choice. Abortion and contraception are medical choices that most of us recognize as personal moral choices; but for anyone other than those involved in those choices to force a preferred decision is an act of judgment and self-righteousness by those not directly involved.

Jesus also did not directly mention problems with immigration. His intention was to go to the “lost sheep of Israel,” (Matthew 10:6 & 15:24) so that it was a special circumstance when he healed non-Jews. It was clear that conversation about neighbors involved how one Jew treated another. But the Torah addressed the treatment of foreigners directly, reminding Israelites they had once been strangers in Egypt and should understand the need to treat everyone with kindness and hospitality. (Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 10:19; and Leviticus 19:34) Jesus’ emphasis on putting Torah ethics into practice would also apply to immigrants today.

The standard Jesus used to evaluate religious leadership was simple: look at their actions. How can we tell legitimate spokesmen for God from the false? “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6: 44). How can we tell which religious leaders truly love God? They imitate the actions of the Samaritan who, not thinking of his convenience or righteousness or the worthiness of the victim, went out of the way to help someone in need. They do not side with the wealthy and prosperous against the needy, or celebrate their success by living in affluent enclaves; rather, they live among common people compassionately and non-judgmentally as they shun lives of extraordinary privilege.

Loving God, according to Jesus, is best seen when people are treated as neighbors to be loved without judgment or compulsion. Such behavior recognizes the sovereignty of God now and looks forward to fuller realization of justice in the future.

The message and example of Jesus are clear for our time and for all time. The challenge for disciples then and now is to: “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

Review & Commentary

  • Julian R Grev

    We can shout Jesus from the rooftops, from the skies and ears will remain stopped to his words.