Jesus has been going on a tear, ripping into the Jewish leadership in this chapter of Matthew, using multiple “Woe to you!” statements when calling out the Scribes and the Pharisees for their behavior. Jesus is giving them a warning that if they continue in their behavior, terrible things will happen to them.
He tells them that “on the outside [you] look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Previously, he had told them that he knew that they were only doing good deeds when they were being watched, and that the “good works” were just a manner of trying to boost their own power among the people.
Jesus could just as easily be describing the politicians of our day. How often do we see a press junket where a candidate is holding a baby, or helping to serve homeless people dinner, or cleaning up trash? As soon as the reporters disappear, so does the candidate.
Or, perhaps more apropos to the current political climate, you see people vehemently denouncing behavior of others that only months ago they themselves took part in. Behavior for which there is proof on Twitter, Facebook, and the news, but which they hope people have forgotten about in the intervening few months.
But just as much as Jesus could have been talking to our current leadership like he did to the Jewish leadership of his time, he could very well be speaking to each of us.
At some point, we all do things contrary to what we say we believe. And we very easily justify our behavior or our lapse in our convictions by saying that the circumstances drove our behavior, or that we got caught up in the moment. And this may very well be true. Sometimes we get caught up in the situation and our rational mind is not able to overcome the emotions swirling within us and we do the things we claim to stand against.
Or, as is also often the case, we are blissfully unaware that the things that we claim to denounce are actually things we repeatedly and consistently do ourselves. And so when we say that we stand with conviction against something, people just roll their eyes and snicker.
I think one of the takeaways from the evaluation of our own potential for hypocrisy is that Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Loving our neighbor means giving them the same benefit of the doubt, the same examination of the situation, and the same ability to rationalize the behavior away as we do ourselves. More importantly, we need to provide them the same forgiveness as we give to ourselves.
Of course, this type of hypocrisy is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus has been calling out the scribes and pharisees for the type of behavior that goes beyond rationalization and ignorance of our own actions.
Instead, Jesus is pointing out that these men were willfully engaging in behavior that contradicted what they had told the people. The scribes and pharisees are knowingly and intentionally manipulating perceptions in order to retain and strengthen their own power. That sort of behavior goes beyond the unintentional slip-ups or moments of weakness. That behavior signifies a depth of deception that has has crept into someone’s very soul.
So, “do not be like the scribes and pharisees.”