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Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Matthew 23:27-28

I am intrigued that the people Jesus most often and most sternly censured were the scribes and Pharisees, the very people with whom He was most closely aligned theologically and ethically.  New Testament scholars routinely point out that Jesus had more in common with the scribes and Pharisees than he did with the Sadducees, Essenes, or Zealots.

It was the scribes who were devoted to the faithful passing down of the Holy Scriptures to the next generation.  It was the Pharisees (from Hebrew p?rûsh, “set apart”) who were devoted to holy living and who “withdrew from all evil associations and sought to give complete obedience to every precept of the oral and written law” (Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey).  And yet, it was these religiously zealous people who most often drew Jesus’ stinging rebuke, rather than the prostitutes, tax collectors of Rome, and anti-supernaturalist Sadducees.

Jesus put His finger on the problem He had with the scribes and Pharisees when He called “hypocrites”.   Jesus zeroed in on them because, “on the outside they look beautiful…righteous to others”, but, “on the inside are full of hypocrisy”.  

It was a telling word Jesus used in calling them “hypocrites”!  “Hypocrites” was the regular Greek word (hupocrites) for “play actors” in a stage performance.  In ancient Greek drama actors held over their faces oversized masks painted to represent the different roles they were playing.

Taken over by Jesus and the New Testament, “hypocrite” then “came to mean an actor in the worst sense of the term, a pretender, one who acts a part, one who wears a mask to cover his true feelings, one who puts on an external show while inwardly his thoughts and feelings are very different”. (William Barclay, Daily Study Bible)

Jesus was grieved for all hypocrites who worked so hard to protect their images and to hide behind masks.  They didn’t want anyone to know them as they really were.  Lonely and fearful, every hypocrite labors to project a carefully managed image to the world.  When they were just children they learned to hide behind masks in order to get what they wanted in life, or to avoid what they didn’t want.  They used the masks to hide their fear, wounds, pride, and need.  They tried to construct an identity, rather than accepting the God-given identity of being created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s Son.

It is not that Jesus thought the scribes and Pharisees were worse sinners than prostitutes or tax collectors, but Jesus knew that as hypocrites they would not know how to come and receive freely of God’s grace.   Because to taste God’s grace is to know ourselves as loved unconditionally by Him, and to be of infinite worth to Him.  We have nothing to prove and nothing to defend.  We are who we are in God’s eyes, nothing more, and nothing less.

As a Pharisee in recovery, and one who still struggles with masks, I remind myself of these things I know to be true of my identity in Jesus Christ:

  • I am free of needing people to think better of me than I really am.
  • I am free of needing to be noticed.
  • I am free of needing to have my achievements or spirituality noticed.
  • I am free of needing to always be right, to always win.
  • I am free of needing to defend myself, because I am God’s very own child.
  • I am free of needing to shame myself, because Christ has taken away all shame.
  • I am free of needing to be perfect, because I am forever united to Him who is Perfect.

So, away with the masks!  Live free!

Grace and peace,

photo by OC Always

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