In Matthew 6:2 and 6:16, Jesus tells us not to act like the “hypocrites” do.
“Hypocrite” is a Greek word. It was a technical word from the world of Greek drama. Literally, the word means “an interpreter from underneath.” In Greek drama, the actors wore masks to make it clear to the audience which part they played. There was a mask for the hero, and a mask for the heroine, and a make for the villain. Different masks were used for comedy than for drama. A “hypocrite” was one who spoke, or interpreted, the play from underneath a mask. Jesus expanded the word to anyone who put on an act, pretending to be what he or she is not.
Unfortunately, hypocrisy was not just a problem among the highly religious people of ancient Palestine. It continues to be a problem today.
Dick Sheppard spent much of his life preaching in the open air to people who were either hostile or indifferent to Christianity. Sheppard shared that from his experience, “the greatest handicap the Church has is the unsatisfactory lives of professing Christians.”
John Stott adds, “Hypocrisy is hideous. What cancer is to the body, hypocrisy is to the church.”
When we put on an act spiritually—when we pretend to be something that we are not—we poison people’s attitude toward Christ.
Sadly, we are all inclined toward hypocrisy. None of us are 100% genuine.
Much of the reason for this is that we all want to be liked by others, and in our desire to be liked by others we pretend to be what we are not, hoping that others will like us for the image we present, since we fear they will not like the truth about us.
David Benner expresses this struggle well in his book The Gift of Being Yourself:
“My longstanding investment in being respected has been an attempt to control my environment and guarantee the sense of specialness to which I have become addicted. The bondage in any false self is the bondage of having to keep up the illusion…. My compulsive pursuit of…the respect of people who are important to me suffocates the life of my true self. It blinds and inhibits my growth and restricts my freedom. It is important for me to remember that I am a human being, not a human doing. My worth lies in who I am, not what I can do or how I am seen by others.”
What is the remedy for the poison or prison of hypocrisy?
The remedy is found when personal honesty is met by grace. It is only grace that enables us to know that we are loved not on the basis of what we pretend to be but on the basis of God’s humungous, forgiving, unconditional, nevertheless, gracious love!
In their book How People Grow, Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend write, “We all need a place where we can say, ‘You won’t believe how sick I am! Let me tell you about this thought I had today.’ We need to make this kind of confession normal. Then we can begin to clean up our insides.”
Kellen Criswell adds, “If I really believe and feel the depth of my need for God’s grace, and know that I have it through faith in the gospel, I will be able to hear you be transparent about your need for grace without my spiritual gag reflex going off. I will be able to listen to you be honest about your darkest temptations, grossest sins, or most painful manifestations of brokenness without viewing or treating you as someone with a worse-off spiritual condition than my own. If you really believe and feel the depth of your own need for grace and that faith in the gospel has supplied all the grace you need, you will be secure enough to hear me be transparent about the same things with you. This is gospel safety.”
When honesty is met by grace, we don’t have to pretend; only then can we move away from hypocrisy.
How do you make sense of Jesus’ demand for perfection in Matthew 5:17-48? He begins this passage with the statement, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20). He ends the passage with an even more extreme demand: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48).
When I am tempted to water this down and think that Jesus is merely exaggerating, that we don’t really have to be as perfect as God, I recall a set of statistics I stumbled upon one time:
If 99.9% is good enough, then:
- 22,000 checks will be deducted from the wrong bank accounts in the next 60 minutes.
- 268,500 defective tires will be shipped this year.
- 291 pacemaker operations will be performed incorrectly this year.
- 18,322 pieces of mail will be mishandled in the next hour.
- 12 babies will be given to the wrong parents every day.
I can see and appreciate Jesus’ concern here: Heaven will not be heaven if you and I succeed in getting rid of 99.9% of the evil inside of us and sneak into heaven even .1% of our evil.
Seen from this vantage point, what Jesus says in Matthew 5:20 and Matthew 5:48 makes sense, but where does that leave us? I have come nowhere close to reaching even 99.9% of moral goodness. And Jesus makes it even tougher by stressing that His standard of perfection applies not just to my deeds but to the intentions of my heart, telling us that if we call a person a name we have committed murder in our hearts (verse 22) and that if we look lustfully at a woman we have committed adultery in our hearts (verse 28).
In light of this, what hope is there for me (or for you) to get into heaven?
If it was left to us, there would be no hope. But missionary pilot Bob Griffin points us to something beyond just ourselves. He reports that when Wycliffe Bible Translators were working with the Huaroni people in Ecuador, translating the Bible into their language, they got stuck on the word “reconciled.” They were trying to express, in the Huaroni language, the Biblical message that God reconciled the world to Himself through Jesus, but they could not find a word that would fit. Unable to solve the problem, one of the translators set aside his work and went out on a short expedition with some of the Huaroni men. As they hiked through the jungle, they came upon a narrow, but deep, ravine. The missionary looked left and right, searching the length of the ravine, and he saw no place to cross it. He looked down into the ravine, and he saw no way to climb down one side and back up the other. He assessed the distance across the ravine, and he knew that none of them would be able to leap across the chasm. As far as he could see, they had reached the end of the road. The Huaroni, however, took out their machetes and cut down a large tree so that it fell over the ravine, permitting them all to cross safely. The translator, listening intently to these men, discovered that they had a word for “tree across the ravine.” This seemed to be the best way to express the meaning of the word “reconciled.”
Here is the hope for us: If it was left to us, we would never be able to get across the ravine from earth to heaven. None of us are close to being even 99.9% good. In Matthew 5:17-48 Jesus makes it clear that this alternative will never work. But if crossing the ravine from earth to heaven is accomplished by Someone else laying down a bridge for us, we have hope. Ephesians 2:8-9 spells it out: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The ravine between us and God can be crossed not because of our goodness but because Jesus laid down a bridge when He laid down His life for us.
In Matthew 5:13 Jesus says something frightening: He says that we are the salt of the earth but that if the salt loses its saltiness it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled upon.
What is the nature of saltiness? What is it that makes salt worth more than being thrown out to be trampled on?
Consider these qualities:
Salt preserves. As David Hiskey points out, “Salt has been used as the primary method of preserving meats and various other foods as far back as history records.” Salt keeps food from going bad by absorbing water from the food, making the environment too dry to support harmful mold or bacteria.
We are to be salt to this world by striving for what is good and just and right and compassionate so that an environment is established wherein the harmful mold or bacteria of evil cannot grow.
Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament over 200 years ago, remarked, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
When we, who are meant to be salt, lose our saltiness—when we stop striving for what is good and just and right and compassionate—evil flourishes.
Salt cleanses. Throughout history, salt water has been used to cleanse wounds.
Anne Lamott writes, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
What we need in place of the poison of un-forgiveness is the cleansing nature of forgiveness. Corrie ten Boom stresses, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Pope Francis adds, “Pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart.”
When we, who are meant to be salt, lose our saltiness—when we stop forgiving and stop bringing the good news of forgiveness to others—the poison of un-forgiveness prevails.
Salt adds flavor. William Barclay states, “Food without salt is a sadly insipid and even a sickening thing.” The same could be said about life without joy. Joy is how a Christian is meant to bring flavor to the world around us.
G.K. Chesterton claims, “Joy, which was the small publicity of the Pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Henry Ward Beecher argues, “The test of Christian character should be that a man is a joy-bearing agent to the world.”
When we, who are meant to be salt, lose our saltiness—when we stop being “a joy-bearing agent to the world”—we cease to bring to the world around us the flavor that is needed.
We tend to take a much shallower view of things than Jesus does.
When we hear the phrase, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” we tend to think that it refers to those who are good at avoiding conflict, or, at the best, those who are good at resolving tensions.
But Jesus did not come into this world to avoid conflict. He did not even come into our world just to resolve tensions. He came into our world to make peace in a much fuller sense of the word.
The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Shalom is not merely the avoidance of conflict. Shalom has to do with everything that makes for a person’s highest good. When Jesus speaks of a peacemaker, Jesus is speaking of a person who works for the establishment of what is right and good and healthy for people, and He is speaking of a person who works at establishing right and good and healthy relationships between people.
William Barclay suggests that peacemakers are those who are “engaged on the very work which the God of peace is doing,” and as “those who make this world a better place for all men [and women] to live in.”
No wonder Jesus says that peacemakers will be called sons and daughters of God.
A son or a daughter will reveal the family likeness. When we are engaged in the “very work which the God of peace is doing,” and when we are involved in making “this world a better place for all…to live in,” we reveal the family likeness of God, and we will be seen as His sons and daughters.
John Piper comments, “What Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:9 is that people who have become sons [and daughters] of God have the character of their heavenly Father. And we know from Scripture that their heavenly Father is a ‘God of peace’ (Romans 16:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20). We know that heaven is a world of peace (Luke 19:38). And most important of all, we know that God is a peacemaker!”
In his book, The Peacemaker, Ken Sande adds, “When peace and unity characterize your relationships with other people, you show that you are God’s child and he is present and working in your life (Matthew 5:9). The converse is also true: When your life is filled with unresolved conflict and broken relationships, you will have little success in sharing the good news about Jesus’ saving work on the cross. This principle is taught repeatedly throughout the New Testament.” (p. 47)
I recognize that I have a tendency to avoid conflict, but God is calling me to something greater—something that will sometimes involve facing conflict. He is calling me to be engaged in the very work the God of peace is doing;” He is calling me to be involved in making “this world a better place for all…who live in it.”
In Jesus’ description of what makes for contentment in life, otherwise known as the Beatitudes, one of the things He points to is a hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).
What is the meaning of this to those of us who want to find what makes for contentment?
My dictionary defines “thirst” as “discomfort or distress due to a need for water; a craving for any specified liquid.” It defines “hunger” as “a need or craving for food; the discomfort or physical debility caused by lack of food.”
The thing that’s good about thirst is that it drives me to take a drink of water when I need it. The thing that’s good about hunger is that it pushes me to get the food that I need.
Jesus is letting us know that the makings for contentment in life have to do not just with hunger and thirst for the things that satisfy us physically, but with a hunger and thirst for God’s goodness and justice and integrity to live within me and to be lived out in the world around me.
Hunger and thirst are powerful images. In the physical realm, if one’s hunger and thirst are not adequately dealt with, weakness, disease, and death could follow. Dehydration can lead to cramps, urinary tract infections, kidney stones, kidney failure, seizures, low blood volume, heatstroke, and even death. Undernutrition can result in deprivation of critical vitamins which can cause scurvy or other health problems, stunted growth, weakness, and death.
Should we expect any less danger in the spiritual realm? If one’s hunger and thirst for righteousness are not adequately dealt with—if one lacks goodness, justice, and integrity in one’s own life, and if one gives no regard to goodness, justice and integrity in the world around him or her—will we not also see extensive damage to the person’s soul? Will there be stunted spiritual growth? Will aspects of one’s soul (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness) shrivel up? Will one’s spirit become weak and diseased? What chance is there for contentment under such conditions?
In his commentary on this verse, William Barclay remarks, “This beatitude is in reality a question and a challenge. In effect it demands, ‘How much do you want goodness? Do you want it as much as a starving man wants food, and as much as a man dying of thirst wants water?’ How intense is our desire for goodness?”
Later he adds, “It would obviously make the biggest difference in the world if we desired goodness more than anything else.”
Yes, it could make “the biggest difference in the world” if enough of us hungered and thirsted for God’s goodness, justice, and integrity to live in us and to be lived out in the world around us. But this verse begins at a more personal level: It could make the biggest difference in me (and in you) if I (and if you) hunger and thirst for God’s goodness and justice and integrity, because that hunger changes me from a selfish, self-centered mindset to a heart of compassion and goodness—and that is the makings for contentment.