As every tween knows, a hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another. So on the subject of, for example, prayer, a hypocrite would be someone who preaches about the importance of prayer but then does not pray. Which makes Matthew 6:5 somewhat surprising:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

That doesn’t fit the modern definition of a hypocrite, does it?

The Greek word hupokritai refers to those who are playing in a role–in other words, actors. That definition makes sense in the context of Matthew 6:5 and it would be interesting to translate it as:

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the playactors are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

I think this distinction matters. An actor (1) is pretending to be someone s/he is not (2) for the benefit of other people. In Matthew 6:5, it presents a much higher bar than the modern definition of hypocrite.

I do a lot of foolish, sinful things, but I generally have the common sense to refrain from preaching to other people about the importance of those things. I do not, in other words, meet the modern definition of a hypocrite very often. (Not because I avoid sin, mind you, but because I avoid encouraging others to avoid my favorite sins.) But I can’t claim that I’ve never considered the social ramifications of (making public) a particular action or belief of mine. What’s particularly interesting to me about Matthew 6:5 is that the play actor is engaging in what is fundamentally a righteous action (=prayer), but only doing it for public display.

I’m far more likely to be counted among the hupokritai than I am to be a hypocrite.

24 comments for “Hypocrites

  1. Thank you, Julie. I wish you would post bite-size Biblical studies posts more often — they’re incredibly helpful.

    And I also wish you’d pick up your Revelation series again before we get there in Sunday School.

  2. Julie,

    Is there something in the original text that leads you to the assumption that the motivation for the public prayer was to be seen praying? What about the possibility that the public nature of the prayer itself, regardless of the motive, is the condemnable action?

  3. My husband is into Greek right now and we just reviewed this word, but I hadn’t thought about it in context of this scripture. Very helpful.

    I find it interesting to ponder the tension that is there with this injunction from the Savior in contrast with the one that says we should let our light shine so that others can see our good works. Obviously, intent matters (is it for public show or to glorify Heavenly Father?), but still, there is a tension. I guess that invites us to really be in tune with our motives.

  4. To be seen of men must have some other meaning than simply not praying publicly, at least in light of other commands to do so. Part of the problem is praying with the purpose of being seen by people (making an impression on them that makes them think you’re doing quite well, religiously speaking) rather than having foremost the concern to communicate with God.

    The question we might ask having seen the kind of thing you point to, is what’s the difference between seeking to be seen of men (the thing condemned here) and letting your light shine in a way that leads others can see your good works and glorify god? How does the acting/pretending in order to be seen, differ from being a witness of God in all places, times, and so on?

    In some ways I might qualify your #2 “for the benefit of other people” to “so others see us in a way that brings some attention and advantage to ourselves.” Maybe setting ourselves up as a light–something along the lines of priestcraft as the BofM defines it?

  5. I second Ardis on the Revelation series. It was so good while it lasted, and I’ve kept wishing it would reappear——Pleeeeeeeas!

  6. I guess I assumed it was the tweens (and teens) who oversimplified the definition (for their own benefit — not that any adult would do that!)

    The publicly praying hypocrites, to be seen of men as if they were pious, were pretending in that act — play acting as you point out — when the rest of their lives was inconsistent with that outwardly pious behavior.

    Of course, calling another imperfect person a hypocrite is dangerously judgemental for us mere mortals. It’s true I’m far from perfect, but in the broad arc of my life, I’m trying to move in that direction. I will certainly fall short (and be called a hypocrite by my teenagers), but I hope as they mature they realize that I’m trying to be better today than I was yesterday.

  7. Meh. This kind of post leaves me flat because the initial thinking is sloppy. There are plenty of things I do that I know I shouldn’t do but I still do. I’m a hypocrite for telling others not to do them? I probably know better than anybody how dangerous they are. An addict can’t warn people about the dangers of addiction? A person who’s had to pick up the pieces of their life after infidelity can’t caution others to be faithful? I’ve always known the importance of prayer but not always done it. I may not have always testified of it, but I’ve always encouraged it when I could. Same with service. Do any of us serve as much as we’d like or know we should. We’re hypocrites, then, for just keeping to ourselves about a principle we know is good?

    Hypocrisy is advocating a different set of standards, one for myself and another for others, not falling short of my ideals. Following this logic, none would be able to advocate for much goodness at all. It’s through talking about our struggles that we find solutions and strength and a community that binds us, not struggling privately with our problems in a closet, keeping our mouth shut and then finding out that so and so who preaches chastity but blew it egregiously is a hypocrite.

    As for the bit about playacting, I do find that interesting.

  8. I think they can still be thought of two sides of the same thing.

    Praying in public for show is basically preaching that “this is what you should do.” I always thought of a hypocrite as someone who had a difference between their outward and inward beliefs. Outward beliefs are shown through preaching, public acts, etc. Inward beliefs are shown by your thoughts and actions when you don’t have an audience.

    For reference, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hypocrite lists the two definitions Julie mentioned, one about false appearances and one about false statements.

  9. Brian’s comments just made me think of something else. He seems to be describing more of a double standard than hypocrisy. an interesting thought experiment might be hypocrisy vs double standards.

  10. He is a hypocrite.

    You are lovably inconsistent.

    I act in a complex way based on my deep understanding that transcends superficial contradictions.

  11. I like what Adam’s said here. One way to see hypocrisy (and unrighteous dominion–perhaps related to hypocrisy but not necessarily identical)is as action that is outwardly religious and ‘right’ but which, in reality, is a counterfeit. And with hypocrisy there seems to be knowledge of the action being counterfeit. The things Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount are needful, good, religious acts (prayer, alms-giving, fasting) done for wrong purposes, reasons, motives, with different ends in mind, etc.

  12. Julie, thanks for that insight. It’s something we all ought to be more aware of because it seems the tendency to use doctrines and practices in manipulative ways is more common than the simple “say one thing, do another” definition we like to have. Knowing the fuller meaning of the word also helps us to back off the ever-present distraction of finding the negative new testament attribute in our fellow Christians outside the church.

    It drives me to near insanity when any comment following a question about Christ’s condemnation runs along the lines of, “that’s just like the Catholics!”, or “sounds like evangelicals to me!”

  13. Most of the problem, I think, comes because people don’t really know what hypocrisy means.

    I was just discussing a Wall Street Journal article about modesty with one of my (non-lds) friends a few days ago. She made the comment that, due to the lack of restraint of the 60s-70s, “My generation, in their youth, gave away their right to moral outrage.”

    I hear such things all the time. Anyone who smoked pot as a teen thinks telling their kids not to smoke is “hypocritical.” If they had sex before marriage, they are “hypocrites” if they teach their kids abstinence. Etc. But that’s simply not what it means.

    In fact, even if I’m STILL doing something dumb, harmful, sinful — telling someone else not to isn’t hypocritical. It may not be a good example, but it’s not being a hypocrite.

    The dictionary definition of “hypocrisy” lines up nicely with hupokritai:

    the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.

    Thanks for the post, Julie. Good stuff. :)

  14. Mormon’s sermon in Moroni 7 says:

    6 For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.

    7 For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

    8 For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.

    9 And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.

    10 Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift.

    11 For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil.

    The need for both righteous works to be united with righteous intent in order for both to be valid and acceptable to God is emphasized here. I think that is the same thing that Jesus is talking about in the hypocrite passages in the Sermon on the Mount.

    With all of the teaching we do to our children, youth and adults about righteous behavior, I think there is a strong strain that also emphasizes what is in our hearts, including love for God and our neighbors, and seeking to have the influence of the Holy Ghost, and the confirming testimony of a witness of the truth of the Book of Mormon and of the truth of the Restoration. Indeed, a good deal of anti-Mormon literature attacks our emphasis on seeking what critics describe as “emotion” to validate the truth claims of the Church.

  15. Hey Julie (or anybody from T&S), are you able to remove the link to the missionary being killed by drunk driver in Argentina (side bar linked by Kent)? It happened in 2006. It’s not a big deal but if he were my brother or close friend it might seem insensitive, although I’m sure no insensitivity was intended. Thanks

  16. I would explain it to teens this way: Take one young man who believed in the law of chastity yet messed up and needed the repentance process. A hypocrite? No.

    Take still another young man who wants to seduce an LDS girl. He acts like something he isn’t in order to get closer to her. Pretense? Hypocrisy? Yes.

    Priestcraft is so distasteful because it is a horrible example of hypocrisy.

  17. I had an interesting conversation at lunch yesterday where me and a few coworkers discussed how modern American society needs to do a better job at drawing the line at what hypocracy is. The reason is that we’re getting more and more adults who don’t want to even advise their children from doing stupid things, because then they would feel that they were hypocrites because they did the same dumb things when they were teenagers. Hypocracy has now started to include not just how you currently are, but how you were in the past. The result being parents who can’t say “Don’t do X” because they’re afraid of the child saying “But you did X” because the parents don’t know how to say “I wish that I didn’t do X” to their children. We’re developing a culture where it’s become wrong to warn people of your own mistakes. Because if you do, you’re a hypocrite.

  18. Very insightful, shows great discernment and spiritual discernment. It reminds me of the story of the woman who bore her testimony admitting that she was still working on her last few favorite sins, as if they were pages of a desk pad on which ink had been spilled. As she removed one page after another (each a favorite sin), she saw that ink continued to leak through, although each time the blot was just a bit smaller, perhaps like our favorite sins that may diminish over time but still leak through.

    Question to the readers: Would a lifetime of hundreds of years (like the people of Enoch) actually result in an eventual 95% or more diminishment of sins or would we discover brand, new exciting ones? Thank goodness for the atonement!

  19. I think you’re right, Julie, if I understand you. A real hypocrite has everything to do with motives, and not necessarily with actions. We don’t have to be perfect to preach about perfection – the standard itself is always better than the seeker. A smoker might be strongly addicted, and unable to stop smoking. It is not hypocrisy for him to teach his children not to smoke as he humbly confesses that he is in chains for it.

  20. One other thing I’d like to bring up in regard to your comments, Julie. Because of some things you said, I get the impression that you think it’s totally out of our reach to become sinless in this world. I think we have, as a church and people, sort of embraced the protestant view in this matter. Joseph’s view was that a man can, and should, rise beyond the nature to sin in this life. Although it is true that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” it is also true, throughout scripture, that the concept of being born of God means arriving at a sin-free state. “He that is born of God doth not commit sin” (1 John 3:9). See also 1 John 3:6, Mosiah 5:2 – “…we have no more disposition to do evil.” Joseph’s original intent was never to endow any man or woman until after they had arrived at this state; and that is why the penalties, at that level of covenant, were more severe. Interesting, huh?

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