Curing Religious Hypocrisy


I know it is rare to find religious hypocrisy today, but that was far from the case in the first century. Hypocrisy was rampant, and Jesus spent much of his time teaching people the cure.

In the first century, the church was divided. As odd as it may sound, though they worshipped the same God, they allowed theological distinctives to divide them. Some believed in an afterlife, some didn’t, and others said it really wasn’t an important discussion.

But the crazy thing is that these groups acted as if they were not worshipping the same God. They met in different places, had different leaders, and some refused to talk to the others!

Each group even had its own ceremonial bath outside the temple and would charge a fee to use it. When you did, it not only fulfilled your ritual requirement, but meant you were signing up for their sub-group. Which did Jesus choose? Was he pro-afterlife, pro-mortality, or pro-this-doesn’t-matter?

How about none of the above? Instead of giving into the isolating sub-groupings, Jesus went out to a river. He opted out of the whole system altogether.

If only theological division were the end of it. The hypocrisy went on to compromise one of the most important pieces of their faith: personal holiness. Holiness was important because God’s people were supposed to live as an example to the world. It was a blessing to seek to try to live more and more like God. But they completely missed the point.

God’s people were using their personal holiness to inflict pain on the rest of their world. Some were so consumed with self-righteousness that they actually thought they had stopped sinning!

What was Jesus’ cure? How did he respond? In a confrontation with some of these self-righteous religious leaders, Jesus pointed out that he had only come for the “sick” people.

Jesus didn’t yell or get into a theology debate. He let their self-righteousness do what it does so well: paralyze their growth and alienate them from those who need help.

Jesus didn’t stop there. Jesus took it upon himself to rescue the victims of self-righteous attacks. Jesus stepped in between the hate-fueled rocks and the shamed soul about to be stoned because of her sin. Jesus reminded those wielding holiness as a weapon that if sin required death, then everyone should be executed.

The pinnacle of the first-century hypocrisy was hung on the wall of their church building. God’s people were supposed to be the means by which God blessed all the nations. Yet, on the wall of their church was a sign that read “the foreigner who passes this wall will bear the responsibility for their resulting death.”

How did Jesus react? What was his remedy for the height of religious hypocrisy? He turned over the tables that were in front of this wall. He used their own scriptures to remind them that this place was to be a place of prayer for all the nations. He reminded them that God had destroyed their church walls before and would do it again.

I know it’s hard to imagine 2,000 years later a world where church people separate themselves from non-churchgoers, where people of faith become self-righteous, and where those who are worshipping the same God fight amongst themselves over theological nuance.

If we ever did find ourselves in a place filled with this sort of religious hypocrisy, we could take heart to know that Jesus showed us the cure.

Jesus showed us the way to focus on our God rather than the unimportant theological minutiae.

He showed us that holiness is a gift, not a weapon.

Most of all, Jesus showed us that no religious idea or structure can separate us from his love and grace. It is available to everyone everywhere. All we have to do is ask.


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