Christians are hypocrites. That is the word on the street about us, demonstrated in survey after survey. A prime example is a landmark study by the Barna Group, which found 85 percent of young people outside the church surveyed agree that Christianity is hypocritical. Even when they asked only youth who attend church, 47 percent still agreed that Christians are hypocritical.
Jesus’ clear words of warning on this Ash Wednesday, repeated three times, are that we are not to be like the hypocrites with regards our almsgiving, prayer and fasting. When Jesus says “hypocrite,” this was the common term for an actor. In the theatre, actors pretend to be someone they are not, and so it is a natural extension to describe as an actor anyone whose outward actions don’t match the content of their heart.
In classical Greek theater, actors wore masks to portray characters. And it was in this dramatic tradition of Aristophanes and Xenophon that the word “hypocrite” came to be the word for an actor. Actors spoke behind a mask, and the audience could not read the emotions of the actor on his face. In time, as all realized that we can wear masks figuratively as well as literally, the term “hypocrite” came to be used, as Jesus does here, for someone who says one thing and does another. The inner character does not match the mask.
We all wear masks, and it should be noted that this is not always bad. Bank tellers and grocery store clerks and even priests don’t always need to reveal every inner thought on their faces as they work. Putting on a brave face to visit someone in the hospital for whom you have grave concerns is a good thing. And who would want a doctor whose uncertainties over a diagnosis came through at the bedside? Better to put on the mask of professional confidence with a patient and then go consult colleagues and revisit research to make sure you’ve got it right. Wearing a mask is not all bad in and of itself. Perhaps the problem with a mask depends more on who you are trying to fool and why.
The mask to which Jesus takes exception in our gospel reading is a mask turned toward God. And there is no sense pretending with God. God knows that you don’t have your act together. God knows the bad thoughts behind the pleasant persona. God knows the confused motives behind the seemingly innocent remark or gesture. God not only knows the real you, God loves the you that lives behind the mask.
So Jesus warns that there is simply no point in going out in public to show others your faith. Do not blow trumpets announcing your gift to the synagogue or pray out loud standing on a street corner or make yourself look dismal so that everyone knows that you are fasting. Jesus states clearly that his followers are to give to the needy, pray and fast, but these actions are between the disciple and God alone. Acts of piety and are not a show we put on for the benefit of others. As Jesus says three times, it is your Father who sees in secret that will reward you. This makes it clear that outward acts done to impress others don’t make one holy. Outward acts done for show can, at best, make you appear holier than thou, which is the opposite of holy, just or righteous.
The scripture reading is, of course, intended to be at odds with the liturgical actions of this day. For on Ash Wednesday, we can head to work with an ashen cross on our foreheads as an outward sign of our worship this day. Together with Good Friday, this is one of two fast days for the church. So when Jesus warns that we are not to disfigure our faces to show others we are fasting, yet we head to church to put ashes on our foreheads, there is a disconnect. The choice of reading this gospel and the lesson from Joel in which the prophet says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” are both counseling us to pay more attention to the content of our hearts as we enter this season of preparation for Easter. Do not worry about the outward actions, so much as the you behind the mask.
It is only natural that Christians are seen as hypocrites. We say we want to live like Jesus, and yet we go around acting little different, if at all, from those who are not Christians. We have a high ideal and we fall short of that mark. The answer is not to wear a mask showing the world that we have our acts together. What Jesus says clearly is to not be like the hypocrites at all. Don’t worry about the public face you put on. Concern yourself with God’s view of you rather than other people’s.
This is the perfect place to let the mask go. Part of every Eucharist is designed to let the mask slip before approaching the altar. The confession of sin is the time when, having already considered the person you are behind the mask, you offer up all your pretensions, all your bad thoughts, wrong motives and evil desires. Confession is the time for letting go of some of the baggage you carry around, in thought word and deed, in things done and left undone. Having laid aside the mask that could separate us from God, we then approach to be nourished once more by the One who knows us fully and loves us anyway.
For the personal baggage is what leads to the unhealthy use of a mask. You never could be that daughter your father wanted you to be. You never quite measured up as a son for your mom, compared to your siblings or to her ideal. You never quite got it all together the way you hoped you might, and so you wear a mask that tries to cover the real insecurities hiding just below the surface. If people knew the real you, you think, they wouldn’t like what they saw.
All of these messages are wrong, as each of them misses the point that you are a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course you have fallen short of the mark set by God. And yes, you do need to repent and return to God. But you don’t need the mask. Not with God.
In the words of the prophet Joel, God is telling us, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.” What would happen if your mask slipped to the floor? When it comes to letting go of pretensions and getting real with God, there is no time like the present.