Read Matthew 22:15-22.

Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? (Matthew 22:19)

Pillars of the community. Flawlessly abiding by societal norms. Teachers. Leaders. Examples.

These religious leaders want to protect the faith and the community. When strange attacks threaten the team, they get back on defense.

I suspect that these Pharisees truly believed that they were defending the faith and defending God. And yet Jesus is no fan. He warns the disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”

If the Pharisees truly believed they were defending the faith, was there any sin in their actions? Is it possible to to sin with good intention?

That’s a good question, but here I suspect that their intentions were tainted. They may have believed they were defending the faith, but only because their distorted desires encouraged them in that belief. They wanted to defend the faith—the faith that looked up to them as respected community leaders. Their desire to defend the faith was tainted by self-interest.

Misshapen, ugly desires lead to misshapen, ugly thoughts and misshapen, ugly actions. If they had truly loved God above all, they would have been filled with joy to see the day they lived in. Just as we should be filled with joy to live in this day.

We humans may think of ourselves as rational, but what we believe is way more affected by what we desire that we may believe. Or desire.

Anyway, what’s the remedy? Jesus points it out. Self-knowledge. His first word to the Pharisees is “Why.” Why are you doing this? What motivates you? Look inside yourselves. What is it that drives you? Are you truly defending God—or yourselves?

We are easily self-deceived. It may actually be a grace—when we think we are acting out of good motivations, our guilt is reduced. But the fact that we are misshapen, distorted, ugly doesn’t change.

Hypocrisy is driven by a desire for others, especially those in our own tribe, to think well of us. This leads us to all sorts of behaviors that, are, well, ugly. Lying about our actions or motivations. Putting down others. Paying much attention to how we appear or how we express ourselves. Striving to fit in. Defending ourselves or our tribe. When the desires are strong, they can lead us to believe things that are clearly false, to say things that are undeniably hurtful, to do things that are obviously sinful.

What can we do? What Jesus says—“beware.” Be aware. Think about what is motivating your actions. When harsh words come out of your mouth, think: are they true? Are they intended in love? Are you trying to defend yourself or your tribe? What desire is driving you? How can you resist that desire?

You might even actively fight hypocrisy. Be silent when others speak ill of you. Dress simply. Leave a typo in everything you write. Openly confess your sin. Seek the lowest place. Think of others as better than yourself.

This attitude of taking one step back from yourself, watching what you say and do, keeping an eye on your own motivation, is watchfulness. Watch and pray.


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.