Historical Cultural Context


Non-introspective people who rely on external appearances for judging others develop a skill for creating and projecting appearances. In order to win a positive judgment from others and thereby gain a grant of honor from them, people learn to “put up a front” to “wear a mask!'

Devious questioners hoping to trap Jesus compliment him by saying, “Teacher, we know that you show no favor to anyone [literally, you do not lift up the face]” (Luke 20:21). While many people were unable to judge by more than what they saw, some, like Jesus, could see through human masks. This was extraordinary.


Imagine the scenario of would-be teachers or leaders who are expert at putting on a mask and offering advice to others regarding moral improvement. In the Middle East this scene is very easy to imagine. It happens all the time. Audiences constantly wonder about the teacher. And the teacher always strives to put on the best front!

Jesus, however, calls these teachers “hypocrites!” In classical and Hellenistic Greek this word meant “interpreter”, “expounder ”, “orator ” even “stage actor.” In this latter case, the Greek word took on the added meaning of “deceiver” and “pretender.” In theater this is an award-winning skill. In reality—even in Mediterranean culture—this skill and strategy makes life difficult. Whom can one trust?

In the synoptic Gospels, only Jesus uses the word “hypocrite" to criticize certain people. Here (L 6:39-42) he identifies misguided teachers ancleaders as such. Later in this Gospel he calls the crowd “hypocrites ” who know how to “interpret the appearance [literally, face!] of the earth and sky, but not how to interpret the present time” (Lk 12:56). In the next chapter, he again scolds the crowds who object to his healing a woman on the Sabbath: “Hypocrites! Don't you rescue your ox or donkey on the sabbath when necessary? Why should I not rescue this woman?” (Lk 13:15). In each instance, Jesus sees through the facades each group constructs.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus exhorts his listeners to candid self-examination and authentic efforts to improve self before attempting to help others improve themselves. Short of this effort, such teachers and leaders are blind, unreliable, and untrustworthy. They are deceivers, actors, hypocrites!

Bearing Good Fruit

Another way of identifying hypocrites in the ancient world was to notice inconsistency in behavior. Our ancestors in the Faith believed that human beings should behave consistently, even though many of them did not.

How was consistency determined? The human body could be divided into three distinct yet interpenetrating symbolic zones: eyes-heart (the eyes for gathering the information that the heart needs for making judgments); mouth-ears (the organs that collect and share self-expressive speech); and hands-feet (the body parts that act upon or implement what one has learned or knows).

Eyes-heart. Jesus spoke of teachers and guides with flawed vision (Lk 6:39-42). He noted the heart's potential for producing both good and evil. He urged that teachers strive to develop proper vision and insight and a good heart.

Mouth-ears. For Jesus, it is clearly imperative that a person cultivate a good heart that will produce good fruit, “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45), words that others will hear, remember, and act upon.

Hands-feet. But speaking alone is not enough. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:45). It is imperative to act upon what one knows, to live according to what one has learned.

This is how the human person acts consistently, with all the symbolic body parts in sync: heart-eyes, mouth-ears, hands-feet. In other words, it is important that one’s emotion-fused thoughts (heart-eyes), self-expressive speech (mouth-ears), and purposeful activity (hands-feet) be perfectly coordinated. Anything else is stage-acting.

If our ancestors in the Faith could spy on us as we are spying on them, they would consider us as strange as we consider them. But on this we would agree. Human beings owe each other-and God-honesty and integrity in every dimension of life.

John J. Pilch

John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson