Today’s text from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) is well known to anyone who attends Mass on Ash Wednesday. It is a warning against showing off one’s good deeds, specifically prayer, fasting and almsgiving and is directed against the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Three times Our Lord labels these show-offs’ “hypocrites,” which sounds very insulting indeed!
But if we look at the original meaning of this word “hypocrite” in Greek culture, it may not be that bad after all. You see, the word was used to describe an actor, a person who plays a part, pretending to be someone else. So Jesus does not necessarily have our meaning in mind when he uses the term hypocrite. For us, it usually means a person who is inconsistent, one who fails to practice what he or she preaches. But these opponents of Jesus do practice what they preach. It is just that their practice is so showy, so public.
The image of the actor is clearly brought out in the final verses of our reading (16-18) in the case of fasting. We all recognise that fasting can be a painful exercise at the best of times, but the Pharisees put on an act of great suffering by: “putting on a gloomy look,” and: “pulling long faces to let people know they are fasting.”
Then Jesus advocates a different kind of acting, which instead plays down the sacrifice involved in this penitential practice. This kind of actor: “puts oil on his head,” and: “washes his face,” to cover up his virtue, keeping it secret. I suggest we can deduce from these images that there is a good and a bad kind of acting, and that it is the good type that Our Lord advocates for his followers.
The focus for the good actor is the secrecy of his or her craft. They submerge their own personality and character in the role they are playing. They know the performance can be ruined if they peek out from behind the mask, if they let their own distinctive personality take over. Their whole raison d’etre is to convince the audience of the reality of the person they are representing. Ideally they should want to benefit their audience, not to gain their admiration.
Therefore, we can see the criticism Jesus is making of the hypocrites, for they are not interested in the benefit of others, but only of themselves. They are meant to lead people to God, but they only manage to lead them to their empty, vain selves.
If we look at the life of Jesus, we might say that he is the consummate actor, hiding his own character as Son of God in order to point to his Father. Hence, the only prayer he gives is the Our Father. He is slow to accept the title “Messiah,” preferring to call himself, “Son of Man.” There is no seeking admiration for himself. Though his miracles are public wonders, they are not showy in the way the conduct of the Pharisees is showy.
The same can be said of the Christian, the follower of Christ. We are called to be good, not bad actors, presenting Christ to the world, hiding ourselves, keeping our identity secret, so that what the Father sees in secret is rewarded.
Finally, we can see that there is a contrast between rewards for the good and bad actor. The bad one is like the actor who thirsts for the applause of the audience at the end of the performance. But this is passing, ephemeral. When the curtain closes for the final time and the lights go down and the last echo of applause dies away, that actor is left empty, longing for the next morsel of admiration. He has his reward, but is it worth it?
But Jesus tells us that when we live for him and the Father through the inspiration of the Spirit, we can think of our souls as a private theatre where we practice our virtues with our fellows with God and his angels and saints in the front seat, constantly encouraging us and applauding our efforts. It is the best of rewards, an eternal one, but only for the secret actors, the good “hypocrites.”
Kieran Cronin OFM
(Before the end of Mass on Wednesday, Fr Kieran read a prayer of Spiritual Communion. Many found this helpful in the context of the Gospel for this day and Fr Kieran’s homily. You can find this prayer by clicking HERE.)