Hypocrisy, Integrity, and Fasting





MATTHEW 6:16-18


A local minister stopped by the local bar to see if he could find any folks he could bring back into the fold of the church.  He came upon a former member he had not seen in a while. “I never go to church,” boasted the wandering member. “Perhaps you have noticed that?”

“Yes, I have noticed that,” said the pastor.

“Well, the reason I don’t go is because there are so many hypocrites there.”

“Oh, don’t let that keep you away,” replied the pastor with a smile. “There’s always room for one more.”

We like to read Bible stories about the religious leaders, boasting about their fasting, those Pharisees, those hypocrites. Yet, perhaps the number two reason why people don’t come to church and believe in God, number 1 being why do bad things happen to good people, is that Christians are hypocrites.  Granted when the founder of your faith is Jesus, who was the perfect human being, and who is God, well it is pretty easy to be accused of hypocrisy.  It’s a pretty high bar. And if you set the bar pretty low, well there is far less of a chance of being accused of being a hypocrite.  Still, hypocrisy, moral failing, deception, betrayal, is not unique to Christians. We can all think of that story of a promising business person, clergyperson, or politician, someone we just had begun to put our hopes in, who falls from grace. They just don’t make a mistake. They go against the very persona they have created for those around them. And when they fall they destroy our hope. Our hope that there is goodness, there is justice, there is power to overcome, hope that there is a God. Are we condemned to become the very thing we hate? Even us, we saints, we followers of Jesus Christ? I don’t think so. The cure to hypocrisy is integrity.  On its face this passage seems to be about fasting. Indeed, the last few sections of scripture are the Holy Trinity of Jewish piety, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.  And yes, Jesus says “when you fast” assuming that his followers would continue to fast. So prayer, almsgiving, and fasting are components of the Christian faith as well. But the core of what Jesus is trying to show is the dangers of doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  In fasting Jesus is trying to show us the danger of hypocrisy and how a Christian can avoid that, how we as believers can stand with integrity. So today I want us to see. 1 What is the true fasting that Jesus calls us to. 2. What are the roots of hypocrisy. 3. How we can live a life of integrity as believers and as a church.

As John Piper notes in his book A Hunger For God, Jesus is not teaching against fasting. He assumes that fasting is a good thing. Instead, he is teaching on how not to fast. Mainly it is a question of whether we desire to be seen by others. Now one could say that there is a benefit to outward religious activities. Jesus does call us to be lights to the world.  Many of us may pray before our children, or read our Bible in public, in hopes of setting a good example, in hopes of getting others interested in the hope that we profess. But as Piper points out this is horizontal thinking ( Piper, pg 74). How can what I do affect that which is most real to me, that being others around me. But Jesus is challenging us to believe that our Father in heaven, who is invisible, is more real than anyone around us, especially when we are in secret, especially when we seek solitude. Often fasting in the Jewish religion is a sign of repentance and mourning. And it still is that. But for the Christian fasting is a sign that we are hungry for God. That we need food to live, but we cannot live by food alone, that we need every word that comes from the mouth of God, that there is something deeper than taste, touch, smell, and sight that we are to rest our lives upon.  How many of us hunger more for God than we do for Chick Fil A?  ( just confessing my own weakness here)

A secondary benefit of fasting as Richard Foster points out in his classic book Celebration of Discipline is that fasting reveals what controls us (Foster, pg 55). As we empty ourselves of physical things it allows the Spirit to fill us with spiritual things. The Holy Spirit who searches the very depths of the mind of God searches us revealing in us our strengths and weaknesses, revealing in us things we didn’t know or didn’t want to know about ourselves.

False fasting, false piety, can lead us into hypocrisy. But true fasting can reveal hypocrisy in our hearts before it destroys us and those we care about. I have often called hypocrisy the invisible sin, because often we cannot see it in ourselves. Some scholars have argued that the word hypocrite was used at the time of Jesus to describe one who performed in a stage, someone who wore a mask before everyone. The word hypocrite in the Greek literally means one who lacks self-understanding. Indeed, there is a level of deception in hypocrisy. Perhaps we are intentionally deceiving others, perhaps we are intentionally deceiving ourselves. The second option is far worse in my opinion for how does one know if one is lying to oneself? Indeed, often the Pharisees are characterized as being shallow in faith and disingenuous. But I think the word hypocrite doesn’t necessarily suggest that. Perhaps we would prefer that because it allows us to divide the world into black and white, good and evil. But the greatest evil, the greatest corruption, in my opinion, is when we come to convince ourselves that a lie is true. When we hold a sincere conviction that we think is for the good but we turn out to be sincerely wrong. When I look throughout the scriptures I see Jesus having compassion on so many people dealing with so many different kinds of sins.  But to the Pharisees, to the hypocrites Jesus had this to say in Matthew 15:14, “Leave them alone. They are the blind guides leading the blind. And if the blind lead the blind both will fall into the pit.”  I know of no other place in the Bible where Jesus says, “leave them alone.” Those are scary words. Those are horrifying words. I don’t want him to say those words to me. I don’t want him to say those words to you. Self examination, humility, fasting for our Father, are all key to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The cure to hypocrisy, as I said at the beginning of this sermon, is integrity. Self examination, letting the Holy Spirit examine us, is our way of getting to a place of character and integrity.  We have all probably met that man or woman with so much potential. They were naturally talented and had trained in their chosen trade or profession. They could be great at building relationships, at making the sale, at bringing people into church, but there is something in their character that trips them up. It usually takes a while for it to happen and when it does everyone sees. As Dr. Henry Cloud points out in his book Integrity, often in our fast paced world we are so focused on results, profits, success, getting what is ours, that we can easily look past that Achilles heel, that fatal flaw. In a world of nations, wars, macro-economics, and political ideologies, our Lord tells us there is still room for character to make a difference.  Dr. Cloud defines character as the ability to meet the demands of reality. Take for example Job, from our text today. Under extreme pressure Job didn’t break. He endured he maintained his Integrity in a senseless world. The word integrity, at its core means to be whole, undivided, complete ( Cloud, 31). Indeed in Matthew 5:48 Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The word perfect here isn’t the best translation. And even if it was, good luck trying to be perfect. Instead, the word is better translated “complete” or “whole”.  We can’t be perfect that is true. But we have probably all been around those who strike us as complete or whole. They have a different presence. A calming presence. I often think of the evangelist Billy Graham when I think of someone who is complete. I watched a video of his preaching in seminary. It wasn’t that he was a great orator or had a complicated theology. It was that his sincerity was so deep, his faith so calming, that I wanted to believe every word he said. And out of all the public figures I know of I don’t believe I have heard anyone accuse Billy Graham of being a hypocrite. Whole people may sin, they may fall short, but rarely are they hypocrites.

Cloud has many suggestions about how to develop character and integrity. Many of them he applies to practical situations in the business world. I would recommend his book to you.  But I would like to focus on two in particular. First is the power of empathy. Second is the power of showing others favor.

In life we generally classify people into two categories. Introverts and extroverts. This has more to do about where people get their energy from than necessarily how outgoing someone can be but generally extroverts like to be around people more than introverts. And perhaps many of us are even biased and would say extroverts make better leaders than introverts. But being an extrovert or introvert is different from what Cloud calls having a “connecting character” or having empathy. Cloud tells us that we empathize with others by validating their experience ( Cloud, 63). This is really hard when one person’s beliefs and reality are different than our own. This is not to say that it doesn’t matter what is true and what is good. Indeed, truth is very important. It is to say if we do not connect at the heart no one will listen to our truth, relationships will not be formed, lives will not be changed, Christ will not be made known.  For some of us it is easy to socialize, to be welcoming, easy for us to shoot the breeze. But for all of us, to one degree or another, it is difficult for us to connect with some. Especially when differences are pronounced.

Second, Cloud points out the importance of showing favor as essential for building trust. Cloud says that someone who shows favor is a person of Grace, they are for people and they are not against them. They look out for the interests of others even when they don’t have to, even when they are not being watched.  Think of the one honest mechanic you know who will not rip you off but give you a fair deal even if it doesn’t make him or her the most money.  Someone who is a person of grace and favor does not base trust on mutual performance. To quote Cloud, “ If I can only trust you to be for me when I am doing well by you, then I am in trouble. Because the truth is that I will fail you in some way somewhere along the path, and at that moment I need you to help me, not turn against me.” ( Cloud, 83). To base my favor on mutual performance does not lead to trust it leads to mutual fear of who is going to slip up first. To be a person of favor, to be a person of Grace, in Cloud’s words, “is when we extend “favor” to someone, not because they have earned it in some way, but because we just possess it to give.” (Cloud, pg 84).

If I am to be honest I have questioned my own integrity and character over this past year of ministry. I have a ways to go before I am a whole person. Perhaps you do to. And I need your help my people. I understand that sometimes I may not be the most warm or outgoing person. But my heart is to connect with you and with this community. So I ask that you don’t give up on me. And for my part I want you to know that the end of the day I am for you. My desire is to show you grace and love the best way I know how. My desire is that I may become more a man of integrity that we may become a church of integrity that the world may find no hypocrites here.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.

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