We all hide. To one degree or another, we conceal things about ourselves from other people and obscure things about ourselves that we cannot bear to face. One of the peculiar things about humans is that we frequently wear masks. We can pretend to be someone or something that we’re not.
With a parakeet, an alligator, or a warthog, what you see is what you get. My dog Gracie wears her tireless enthusiasm for life on her shiny black coat. She will never be too cool to fetch a tennis ball or to snuggle with me on the bed while we watch Animal Planet.
People, by contrast, hide behind masks for all sorts of reasons.
We cover our fear of being hurt with a mask of anger. Aloofness conceals our fear of rejection. Arrogance disguises self-doubt. Self-loathing masquerades as irritability. Crushing guilt poses as moral indifference. Despair disguises itself as cynical sophistication.
Jesus gets this. Using masks to hide from each other—and to hide ourselves from ourselves—is all too human. We create a gulf between us and our neighbor, and we open up fissures within our own soul.
In Jesus, God makes us one—and makes us whole—by entering into intimate union with us. Just as we really are. Underneath our masks.
God initiates this breathless union with us while we’re still a mess. We don’t coax God out of a distant heaven with our church-going and tithing and clean living. Neither is God waiting around until we die to pass judgment on the quality of our religious life.
Reaching out in friendship, God dwells right here in our midst. We open ourselves to friendship with our Maker by letting go of the masks that hide us. And the first masks to go are those that hide us from ourselves.
To give ourselves to God as we truly are, we have to admit who we truly are. We have to face ourselves. And we have to take the risk that God will really embrace the hot mess lurking behind our masks.
We don’t have to make ourselves presentable or acceptable to God. The crucial spiritual work for us is to make ourselves utterly vulnerable to the love that will transform us.
Understanding that our faith-work turns on vulnerability and surrender sheds light on Jesus’ allergy to religious hypocrisy.
Jesus says, “Pray, give alms, and show contrition, but don’t be a hypocrite about it!” He’s not singling out hypocrites as the most egregious sinners. His warnings about hypocrisy clarify the meaning of our spiritual practices.
If we go to church and toss money in the plate and call ourselves a sinner to win points with God, we’re missing the point. And we can be pretty sure that we’re on the wrong track when we catch ourselves looking down our noses at someone for being less holy or less moral than we are.
Jesus is not pointing a finger at the Ted Haggards and the Jim Bakkers and the abusive Roman Catholic priests caught in the glare of media scrutiny. These were people pretending to be something they were not. And they used their religious status to manipulate, use, and harm others. We don’t really need a teaching about how toxic this is.
Instead, I suspect that Jesus is concerned about sincere but sometimes misguided people of faith. He has you and me in mind.
You see, the word “hypocrite” comes from a similar-sounding Greek word that means “actor.” As you may know, ancient Greek actors wore large masks on stage. The word “hypocrite” soon evolved to point to people who hide their true selves under a figurative mask.
Let’s fess up, we all hide. And so Jesus’ words about hypocrisy are meant for us.
Jesus commends spiritual disciplines. And yet, he warns us that they bear a resemblance to medication. The most potent medicine is at once a means to health and a poison. Just ask anyone who has undergone chemotherapy.
Prayer and study, repentance and works of mercy can be a holy medicine. Through them, God can help us see ourselves and our neighbors as imperfect gifts received and loved by a gracious Redeemer. We can let go of our masks and discover ourselves as one in our weakness and need, one in God’s love for us all.
Or, alternatively, spiritual disciplines can act like spiritual toxins. We can misconstrue prayer time and Bible study as exercises for making ourselves fit enough to be in the presence of God.
This approach to the spiritual life is not about letting go of our masks. It’s about making our masks appealing enough to be accepted by an exacting Judge. This way leads to condescension toward others and the creeping suspicion that we’ll never measure up in the end.
As it turns out, Jesus spends much of his time and energy unmasking hypocrites. Hypocrites like you and me. His aim has nothing to do with pointing a finger of blame. He liberates us from our masks, so that we can see ourselves and each other as we truly are. As the beloved children of God.