“How to be a True Hypocrite” on Matthew 6:2-4 by Joe Ellis — Jan. 22, 2023
Last week I framed this section in the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus talking about practices specific to being part of the family that Jesus is forming around him. Today, we’re invited to reflect on the family practice of giving. I was initially not fired up about preaching on this passage. The application seemed pretty obvious, which I’d summarize as: ‘Let’s give away our money, and when we do, let’s not make a big deal out of it. Don’t let people know what you’re doing.’ I thought I’d probably bring some background info into the sermon — like, I’d talk about how giving money to the poor was one of the foundational practices for Jews of the day, that studying Torah, prayer, and alms-giving were the three foundational spiritual practices back then — and that alms-giving to the poor was seen as a substitute for sacrificing animals once the temple had been destroyed.
I wasn’t super fired up to preach this passage, mainly because it seems like people in this church are really generous and are generally pretty secretive about their giving. Nobody flaunts how much they give to whatever cause they support. I love not knowing how much we all give, it sort of frees me up from caring. So, it didn’t feel like this would be a heavy hitter of a sermon where we are altogether challenged to live in some radically different approach to life based on Jesus’ way.
That’s what I was thinking, until I read a commentary by Scott McKnight. He closed the application section of his commentary by broadening this conversation around giving. He invited me to think about giving not only money, but time, talents, and resources. Not only that, he invited me to think about how I respond when those things I give aren’t noticed or appreciated. When we respond poorly, he said that’s a sign that we have a different motivation than simply giving of ourselves for the glory of God. McKnight said, “The first sign of a person having a motivation problem is grumbling when his or her actions aren’t noticed or congratulated. The second sign is envy and jealousy when others gain credit and they don’t. A third sign is irrational or volatile emotions when one doesn’t get one’s wishes—on, say, the choice of a pastor, or the direction the church should go, or what kind of renovations should be made, if any —in spite of how much someone has given to that church. And a fourth sign of mismanaged motivations is counting heads when one is asked to do a deed like teaching a Sunday School class.”
I read that and I immediately thought, “Oh dear. I can recognize myself in every single one of those. What Scott McKnight is doing is recognizing that our giving takes on many forms — money is merely one form of giving. For some of us, it may be fairly easy to give anonymously and not worry about getting recognition for giving financially to some charitable cause. That may be because the cost of giving financially doesn’t feel that steep — maybe if you or I sold our house to build a homeless shelter, we’d care a bit more about recognition. “Welcome to the Joe Ellis Soup Kitchen,” it might say.
Think of the ways that you can give of yourself that seem to you to cost a bit more dearly. Maybe loving your boss who’s been a real jerk since business started slowing way down and you’re giving 110% to help him out, and he hasn’t even noticed. Or maybe you’ve given yourself to trying to please your parents, trying to make them happy, and they never notice. Or maybe you’re giving yourself to volunteering to an underprivileged population, and again, nobody notices, nobody says thanks. Or maybe I’ve never noticed or acknowledged your service in the church, and you feel taken for granted.
With all of these I’m just sort of stabbing in the dark — but many of us likely have areas in our lives where we want our contributions to be acknowledged. The cost of what we are giving feels really high. We all seem to have areas in our life where we feel miffed when people don’t respond positively to our gifts and contributions. We probably have areas where we want to sound the trumpet alerting people to our good deeds — often it's not a really loud blast. Often it's maybe a quiet toot on a kazoo, something subtle and soft, alerting the person listening to us that we did something good. I’m just one-hundred percent aware of the fact that I do this. I think we are especially prone to this in church culture. We are a community that gathers, in part, because we want to make a positive difference in our community and in the world based on our faith in Christ. Because of that, there is something in us that makes us want to let others know we’re walking the walk.
Now in the verses we read, Jesus calls the people he’s describing as hypocrites. Once again, the hypocrites are the people that Jesus says are sounding the trumpet as they give money to the poor so that people will notice. Throughout this sermon I’ve been admitting that I can identify with angling for recognition in some of the good things that I have done. I’ve tooted my own horn. If you can think of times you’ve tooted your own horn for recognition, then Jesus is calling you and me hypocrites. If, like me, you’d prefer to not be a hypocrite in your life, then keep listening.
For Jesus, being a hypocrite isn’t what we think it means. We do get our English word ‘hypocrite’ from the Greek word hypokritēs, so you’d think translating this word into English would be easy, just use the same word. Except for the fact that the way we use the word hypocrite is slightly different than what it would have meant to people in Jesus’ day. When we say hypocrite, we are talking about someone who says one thing and does another. Like when someone talks to his housemates about how important it is to wash the dishes, but then doesn’t do them himself we think of his as a hypocrite. Like when someone tells her children to be kind, and at the same time demeans them in front of others. Saying one thing and doing the other, that’s our definition of a hypocrite.
Although Jesus would absolutely agree we should not be that sort of hypocrite, his definition goes slightly deeper.
In the Greek world, hypocrite would refer to a masked actor. You know, someone who’s outward appearance is very different than their inward reality. Think of someone on stage wearing a smiling mask, they might even be laughing outwardly, but inside they are seething with anger because their acting partner just stepped on their lines. For Jesus, being a hypocrite is someone who looks one way on the outside, but has a very different motivation on the inside. That’s why Tom Wright translates our passage this way: “When you give money to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet in front of you. That’s what people do when they’re just play acting in the streets.” For Jesus, being a hypocrite is being a play actor. Their actions are hiding their inner reality. It's not that these people were preaching about generosity and not giving a dime of their money. These people may have been giving huge amounts of money. It's just that their outer picture of generosity doesn’t match a generous heart, a generous spirit, a generous mind. They were giving money and appearing generous, but they were not generous people. That, for Jesus, is what a hypocrite is, someone who’s doing all the right actions, but their actions don’t match the inner motivation of their spirit, heart and mind. That’s what Jesus cares about here. He’s not hammering on people who say they’re generous, but in reality are stingy. He’s hammering on people who act in generous ways, but have a stingy heart, mind and soul. Jesus cares about the hypocritical masks we wear. He wants us to learn to live a life without masks so that our outward actions match our inner thoughts.
Take the person in Jesus’ example — he or she gives money, and in some way alerts people to the fact that they’re giving. Maybe it's bold like blowing a trumpet, but maybe it's subtle but noticeable — the quiet kazoo toot I was talking about (a quiet toot is actually more effective because people notice but aren’t sure if you know that you just tooted your own horn). Of course, we notice. It's calculated. People notice and say, “Oh my, that person is really generous. I wish I could be as selfless as they are.” Of course, people will notice different things depending on how we choose to sound the trumpet. We can play one note and they’ll notice our volunteering, we’ll play another note and they’ll notice how much money we give, we’ll play another note and they’ll notice that we are nice to that person nobody wants to talk to. There are really an infinite number of notes to play. Then, do you notice what happens? People say, “Oh my, that’s impressive.”
Here, Jesus is forcing us to realize that when we sound the trumpet, we are not giving at all. Instead, we are just purchasing recognition. That’s what the people in his story were doing. They are paying money to the temple, and in return they get recognition and honour. They aren’t really giving to charity, they are paying to be thought well of by others. It no longer really matters for the person that the money goes to the poor, because they aren’t in fact giving money to help the poor, they are spending money to buy recognition. It's no different if you are spending time to buy recognition, or volunteering to buy recognition. The result is the same. That’s why Jesus says, “They do it so that people will be impressed by them. I’m telling you the truth, they’ve received their payment.” It's just simple economics. It's the way our economy works. They are paying the going rate for recognition, and they are receiving that in return. Businesses do this all the time. They’ll tell you all the good things they donate money to. What they are doing is buying your good will. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not especially honest. It's playacting.
Jesus calls us to give in secret. Now, when we give in secret, we can’t exactly expect to get anything in return. And when we give of ourselves without any expectation of a return, we are immediately thrust into a different sort of economy. It's not the economy we’re used to — based on transactions — it's an economy of mystery, it's an economy of faith. By encouraging us towards secrecy, Jesus takes away any possibility that we will receive a direct return from how we give of ourselves.
Things work differently in this economy of the mystery. Jesus says that as we practice this giving in secret, “Your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.” This is different than the normal exchange of cash, goods and services that we’re used to. Jesus’ economy doesn’t flow in a linear cause and effect sort of way. It's not like this, ‘I want honour, and because the youth group needs a pizza maker, I will buy the pizza maker for $800 and get 10 units of church recognition.’ That’s what play-actors do when they bring capitalism to church.
Again, the economy of Jesus is different, the exchange of goods and services flow through faith. In the economy of Jesus, you give everything, you give all of yourself, you even give away your power. And when you’ve given away your power, you are vulnerable. You’ve given away perhaps what’s dearest to you. You’ve let it go, you’ve truly given freely what you have given. Now you are vulnerable. You have given away your power to be seen, to be noticed, to be an influence, to be strong. Yet your Father sees what you’ve given in secret. He sees. He knows what it costs you. He knows how vulnerable you feel. He knows how weak and painful it can be to give away what costs you dearly. And He will reward you. That’s the mystery of it all — the Father will provide for you. In Jesus’ economy, it's not for us to calculate how to get the best return on our investment. In Jesus’ economy, we give away our assets, our time, out talent, our resources — perhaps even our heart — and we can trust that the Father will take care of us. Perhaps Jesus was thinking of this when he said in Matthew 16:24-25, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For however would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In the economy of mystery, we give all, even our very life, yet what we receive back is beyond our imagination. That’s the economy of faith. After all, is not the God who calls us to be generous, is he not infinitely generous to us?
Jesus wants us to live life without masks to playact. He really does. And when we take off our masks, we begin the difficult work of learning how to have continuity between our outward actions and our inward heart. It is here, in this vulnerable place that Jesus can go to work on our hearts. It is here, when we’ve taken off our masks, when we’ve stopped doing things for show, that he can transforms our hearts into being a truly generous heart. Jesus says that as we give in secret, our Father who sees in secret will repay you. One of the ways that the Father repays us is through helping us grow a truly generous heart. What a wonderful and beautiful reward!