Back in the tumultuous ’60s when I was a teenager, I was a self-proclaimed authority on hypocrites…and mostly everyone I encountered was a hypocrite, especially the people in church.
Sad to say, my distorted beliefs led to countless arguments with my mother, who in her simple piety was always in church and praying the Rosary. I suppose by default I counted her among the hypocritical masses I used to denounce.
“They’re hypocrites, I tell you! All of them!” I would sneer. At 16 years old, I was an authority on the human condition. “Church is filled with hypocrites!” I told her.
If they had a training program for 20th century Pharisees, I could have gotten a scholarship.
I was not alone. It seemed that every teenager in America had the solution to the world’s problems, but no one would listen to us. We were angry young men and women.
For her part, my long-suffering mother would respond calmly: “They go to church because they realize they’re not perfect… like you.” Ouch. That last part hurt, and it still hurts 50 years later.
Looking back, I have to say, “Mom, wherever you are—and I hope it’s the good place—you were right, and I was wrong.” Most of the people I criticized were good people trying to become better people.
There’s a saying that could have come right out of St. Augustine’s writings, but it appears in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, which says: “We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines….We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”
That should be the attitude of Christians everywhere. None of us in perfect. And there’s no standing still in the spiritual life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.
Throughout history, critics of the Church have used religious hypocrisy as an excuse to justify everything from atheism to outright assaults. That’s one reason the so-called “Nones” have abandoned organized religion.
It also has been an excuse for critics of religion like Christopher Hitchens, who wrote “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter,” and Sinclair Lewis, who wrote “Elmer Gantry.”
Of course, the fact that believers are flawed is hardly proof God doesn’t exist. It just means we humans are imperfect by nature and in serious need of redemption. Our failings are not God’s.
Jesus recognized the effect that religious hypocrisy could have on believers when he said of the Scribes and Pharisees: “Practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do, for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men.”
When it comes to hypocrisy, it’s always good to leave the judging to Jesus and concentrate on our own imperfections…or as they say in AA: “Take your own inventory.”
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” Jesus said. “For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
One of my favorite prayers was written by St. Ephrem, a 4th century deacon who lived in a cave above the city of Edessa. He clearly understood our fallen state and recognized the need for redemption.
“O, Lord and Master of Life, take from me the spirit of laziness, meddling, ambition and vain talk,” he wrote. “But give me a spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love. Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and faults and not judge my brother. For You are blessed forever and ever.”
I like to think my mother was praying for my change of heart because decades later, when I look out at the congregation, I don’t see a gathering of hypocrites. I see a lot of sinners like me. And I try to leave the judging to Jesus even though it’s not always easy.