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On March 10, 2008, the New York Times revealed that New York Governor Elliot Spitzer had been caught patronizing a prostitution ring. Two days later, Governor Spitzer appeared chastened before the public as he resigned from office. The story was a nationwide sensation, not because yet another political leader had fallen to a sex scandal, but because Spitzer had made his name as attorney general by prosecuting prostitution rings. It turns out that Spitzer’s great crime was not adultery but, as headline after headline read, he was a hypocrite. He had showed one face to the public — a pious and morally righteous face — while the reality of his life was completely opposite.

What is the biblical perspective on the Spitzer case? Is hypocrisy really worse than adultery? What would Jesus think? The answer is that, while no sin is to be condoned, and in our day the widespread sin of adultery should be especially loathed, hypocrisy really is worse. According to the New Testament, Jesus was angered far more by public hypocrisy than by private sin. Consider His warm gospel outreach to tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus welcomed poor sinners like the woman who sold her wares to Governor Spitzer. He gladly shared meals with them (see Matt. 9:10), and He eagerly responded to the way they acknowledged their sin and came to Him for mercy. But Jesus’ reaction to self-righteous, hypocritical leaders like Spitzer was beyond scathing. “Woe to you…hypocrites!” He cried (Matt. 23:13).

The most prominent of Jesus’ outbursts against hypocrisy occurred at the temple on the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus hated the way the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees preached but did not practice, making the people cynical about religion (Matt. 23:3). He went on to list specific complaints about their hypocrisy, including items that should make most of us wince: they placed legalistic burdens on people without helping them to bear them (v. 4); they performed “all their deeds to be seen by others” (v. 5); they delighted to have their spiritual eminence recognized and rewarded (vv. 6–11); they practiced legalism while allowing loopholes that rationalized cherished sin (vv. 16–22); they observed the less important things while mocking the weighty matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (v. 23); they did everything to appear righteous while doing nothing to be righteous (vv. 27–28); and they made a show of the Bible while doing virtually nothing to obey it (vv. 29–31). Sadly, many will respond, “It sounds like my church!” But if we are willing to be honest, we would lament, “It sounds like my heart!”

But don’t prostitutes do more damage than mere hypocrites? The answer is no. The reason is that religious hypocrisy is practically God-mocking atheism. To be a hypocrite you must praise God while pretending that God does not see or know the truth of your life. Moreover, hypocrisy is the great enabler of sin. Consider Spitzer once again, whose legal heroics against prostitution served as a shield for his own lustful depravity. Unlike straightforward sins like theft and adultery — sins that often drive people to seek the Lord and His mercy — hypocrisy is a sin that keeps us away from God’s grace. Hypocrisy is a soul-ruining sin, drawing us away from the true righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, souring others against God and eliciting Jesus’ most bitter condemnation.

Considering Jesus’ violent hostility towards hypocrisy, is there any good news for hypocrites? If I realize that I am myself a hypocrite — and only a hypocrite would deny it! — does Christ’s woe rest upon me forever? The answer is the hope revealed in the midst of Jesus’ outcry of woe against the hypocrites of His own day. For Jesus is still the Great Physician, and though He wields the scalpel against hypocrisy, He does so to excise this cancer that would ruin our souls.

In fact, Jesus’ denunciation of hypocrisy presents a number of positive principles that can guard our hearts against the tendency to this sin. First, He emphasized the humility that must always characterize those who come to God: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). To come to God through Christ is to come as a sinner humbly seeking grace. Have you done this? Then you have no need to be exalted for false righteousness, since you have the genuine article as God’s gift of mercy in Christ. Reminding yourself that Christ died for your sins will guard you against deceiving yourself and others about your sin (see 1 John 1:8) and from arrogance towards other sinners.

Second, Jesus emphasizes that we must live so as to encourage other sinners to draw near to God. The Pharisees’ message was: “I’m right with God and you’re not!” This is why they delighted to place legalistic burdens on people’s backs, and why their converts were “twice as much a child of hell” as they were (Matt. 23:15). If we will yearn for sinners to find the same mercy we have found in Christ, this will guard us from hypocritical pretensions. While recognizing a proper discretion against needlessly airing our dirty laundry, we will yet be glad for people to know we are sinners so that they can discover our Savior.

Third, the way we live should reflect biblical priorities. The Pharisees gloated in paying tithes on their spices — mint, dill, and cumin — while grinding people under their feet. We should realize that true godliness is displayed in love for the weakest of our neighbors. For, Jesus said, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7).

Fourth, throughout this sermon of woe Jesus insists that we must be more concerned for our inward reality than our outward appearance. He complained that the Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matt. 23:5). He used graphic images to expose their rottenness: “For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (v. 25). What good will it do any of us before God if we present a rotten heart in a pretty package? Most poignantly, Jesus compared such hypocrites to whitewashed tombs, “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (vv. 27–28).

So evil is hypocrisy that while everyone recognizes and hates it in others — wasn’t it easy to denounce Governor Spitzer? — we are often blind to it in ourselves. If only we hated our own hypocrisy as much as Jesus does! Do you doubt that you are prone to hypocrisy? Then consider this checklist that Jesus might have given to His followers:

Do I want people to think better of me than I really am?

Does it bother me when people don’t notice my spiritual performance?

Do I modify my actions to make sure others notice the way I am praying, serving, or otherwise being holy?

Am I quick to condemn others but touchy when my own faults are pointed out?

Do I spend much time looking spiritual but very little time on inner spirituality?

I could go on, but even these few questions should reveal how prone we are to the hypocrisy Jesus hates. What a warning to us are His vivid portraits of hypocritical corruption: cups that are sparkly clean on the outside but covered with filth within; serpents and broods of vipers, frothing with poison towards others; and worst of all, whitewashed tombs, “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones” (Matt. 23:27).

But there is good news, for if hypocrisy is among the chief diseases of our fallen race, Jesus is still our Great Physician. Jesus hates hypocrites, but He loves all sinners — even repentant Pharisees — who flee to Him for grace, condemning ourselves as hypocrites. Therefore, the one way to escape the whitewashed death of hypocrisy is to admit the hypocrisy in our hearts and run without hypocrisy to the cross, where Jesus died to cleanse every sin, including this one. And then we can ask Jesus to shine His light in our hearts to show us the rotten bones and uncleanness, and then to exert His power in us by the Holy Spirit. For while in this life we will always be sinners needing God’s grace, we need no longer be hypocrites, those religious atheists who are hiding the truth of our sins, ruining our souls, and hardening other sinners against their only Savior.