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What “gnats” are we so focused on that we have inadvertently swallowed “camels”? Have we been straining out cuss words but swallowing racism or sexism?

Recovering hypocrite. That’s what my student leaders had printed on T-shirts for orientation days when I was a campus pastor. The point was that all Christians are recovering hypocrites. None of us has always been consistent in following Jesus.

Some disagree, arguing that hypocrisy is intentionally pretending to be what you are not, so though we all struggle in our spiritual lives, only those who pretend otherwise are hypocrites. But a closer look at Scripture reveals that the biblical use of hypocrisy is broader than that.

Jesus told his disciples to beware of the “yeast of the Pharisees” (and of the Sadducees and Herodians)—that is, their teachings and their hypocrisy (Matt. 16:6, 11; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1). Since the New Testament mentions the Pharisees a lot more than the Sadducees, I will focus on them. In charging the Pharisees with hypocrisy, Jesus applies the term to both intentional and unintentional behaviors.

These days, the word Pharisee has come to be almost synonymous with religious hypocrisy. But it was not always so. The Pharisees were highly respected by most people during Jesus’ time. Pharisees believed they could fulfill God’s injunction to “be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45) by creating a community committed to purity, fasting, prayer, tithing, and separation from whatever was “unclean.” They were devoted to obeying, protecting, and propagating all of God’s laws. For that reason, the apostle Paul counted being a Pharisee as something to boast about (Phil. 3:4-6; Acts 23:6).

In fact, the Pharisees were so desperate to keep God’s laws that they started making “fences” or hedges around those laws. They developed contemporary applications of God’s laws to help prevent them from inadvertently breaking those laws. For example, just to be safe, they extended God’s command not to work on the Sabbath to not even picking grain to eat or healing people on the Sabbath.

Over time, these “fences” accumulated and were orally passed down through the generations as authoritative for those serious about keeping God’s laws. These are the traditions that Jesus opposed: “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3). In that specific case, Jesus was responding to the Pharisees’ complaint that his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating—a “fence” to prevent accidentally consuming anything unclean. The Pharisees essentially were accusing Jesus and his disciples of being lax with God’s purity laws. In response, Jesus went to the heart of the Pharisees’ problem: In trying to keep God’s laws by maintaining their “fences,” they failed to realize they were actually contradicting God’s laws. He cited the example of absolving people of their responsibility to provide for their parents—an application of God’s commandment to honor our parents—by devoting their financial gifts to God instead. Thus, a Pharisee “fence” of devoting money to God became a way to nullify one’s obligations under the fifth commandment.

Have we, in our own zeal to be holy, to keep our churches pure and obedient to God’s laws, erected our own “fences” or traditions? In our own tradition, for example, have we been so afraid of violating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that we fenced off the table from anyone other than those few who believed they were truly worthy? Or so fearful of drunkenness that we forbade any alcohol at all? And what about banning card playing, dancing, and watching movies?
More recently, perhaps, have we been so fearful of being racist that we have fenced off all cultures other than our own as immune from criticism? Or so fearful of being unloving that we have fenced off uncomfortable conversations around sin and repentance? Have we, like the Pharisees, confused breaking our own “fences” with breaking God’s laws? 

In their zeal toward faithfulness, the Pharisees strove to meticulously tithe everything to God, down to their spices. But Jesus accused them of focusing so much on the details of their traditions—the trees—that they lost sight of the forest: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:23-24). I doubt the Pharisees intentionally neglected the call to justice, mercy, and faithfulness from Micah 6:8. But Jesus was still ruthless in his critique of this inadvertent hypocrisy.

Jesus’ words are a warning for us today. What “gnats” are we so focused on that we have inadvertently swallowed “camels”? Have we been straining out cuss words but swallowing racism or sexism? Have we been desperately straining out non-inclusive language while swallowing non-biblical worldviews?

In another example of unintentional hypocrisy, Jesus called an entire crowd hypocrites for not knowing how to interpret the present time even though they knew how to interpret the weather (Luke 12:54-56). Reformed thinker Calvin Seerveld defined this as “living in the neighborhood of the Truth but being unaware of what the score is” (Biblical Studies and Wisdom for Living, p. 237).

Like that crowd, we may be adept at reading the stock markets or interpreting the political climate but fail to recognize the spiritual climate. Or perhaps we have misread our spiritual climate, identified the wrong enemies, and offered the wrong solutions.

Because the Pharisees were so highly respected as paragons of religious zeal and virtue, Jesus’ denunciation of them as “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27-28) would have shocked most Israelites in his time. Would we be shocked and offended if Jesus called us hypocrites?

According to a 2007 Barna survey of young Americans (16-29 years old), 85 percent of non-churchgoers think Christians are hypocritical, and 47 percent of regular churchgoers agreed.

I believe they are right. We are all recovering hypocrites, intentionally or otherwise. That ought to humble us, make us reluctant to judge others (Matt. 7:1-5), and make us examine our hearts and our motives. Yeast works gradually, almost invisibly, slowly spreading through the whole lump of dough. It is not easy for us to identify it or to resist it.

By God’s grace, a different yeast is also at work in our lives and in the world—the yeast of God’s kingdom (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21). As we immerse ourselves in God’s Word, in a faithful Christian community, and in faith-forming practices, we allow the Holy Spirit to work that yeast into our lives, enabling us to grow into a more sincere, less hypocritical faith and love.

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