We all have performed a smell test at least once in our lives. We have smelled an item of food such as milk to see if it’s spoiled. We have smelled a baby’s bottom in order to discern if the child has had a bowel movement. We have even smelled a piece of clothing that has already been worn, but hasn’t been washed yet, to see if we can perhaps obtain one more outing in it before putting it in the wash (This is a go-to move for teenagers and young adults but has become more popular in COVID times).
Jesus also in a different way discussed the smell test. He often talked about how to tell if someone was genuine or not. Almost the entirety of Matthew 23 has Jesus railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. According to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees teach the Law, but they don’t follow it themselves. They counsel humility, but they are always seeking ways to be honored and recognized in public. They focus on minutiae but neglect the bigger picture. They work hard to be seen as doing the right things at the right times in the right ways, but internally their motives for doing so are impure.
We are all pretty good at detecting hypocrisy even as young children. We notice when individuals tell us to act a certain way but then act in the very way they told us not act. We especially notice this from people who exert some form of authority over us. We have all, for example, probably encountered that relative or coach who told us not to cuss, but seemed to have no difficulty finding those words frequently themselves.
Hypocrisy Blinds Us
Where I think we go “hypocrisy blind,” however, is when our chosen group is in power. Consider these hypothetical examples. Let us pretend Bob Dole won the presidential election of 1996. While in office, Dole had an extramarital affair with a White House intern and lied about that affair to a grand jury and to the American public. How would the different political parties have reacted? How would you have reacted? We know how those parties reacted to President Bill Clinton doing just those things, and you know how you reacted at that time. More recently, let’s pretend Hillary Clinton won the election of 2016. While in office, Hillary Clinton withheld military funding from Ukraine, asked that president to do her the favor of investigating the son of her presumed presidential opponent in the 2020 election, and chronologically only released the military funding after a whistleblower complaint about her conversation with that president. All the while she claimed the funds had been withheld due to corruption concerns in the Ukraine and were not part of a quid pro quo arrangement. How would the different political parties have reacted? How would you have reacted?
We seem to excuse, overlook, justify, tolerate, or ignore the bad behavior that comes from our chosen groups while quickly and vehemently condemning it when the groups we dislike perform similar behaviors. “As long as our side can get more Supreme Court Justices, I don’t care who’s in office or what they do. As long as legislation ____________ passes, I don’t care what they do in their personal lives. As long as _____________ isn’t elected, I don’t care how bad the other person is.”
We have been lured into and simultaneously continue to self-perpetuate the same dualistic “us or them thinking” that we have been using for centuries. Hypocrisy thrives in the realm of dualistic thinking. It says, “I’m good, so I can do these things to achieve my righteous goals. They are bad and have unrighteous goals, so I can’t let them get away with doing such things.”
Hypocrisy Applies to Others
We are all susceptible to hypocrisy. We all choose blindness at times while our approved group performs unrighteous acts only to immediately condemn a disliked group for performing unrighteous acts. We accuse the groups we despise of “character assassination,” of being the “politically correct police,” of being “socialists or fascists,” or of “deep state conspiracies” when they attack our side only to attack them when we see an opportunity and be accused of the exact same things by them. We perform the smell test on our opponents, and we loudly decry the foul stench emanating from their direction. When it comes time to inspect our side, however, we have a clothes pin attached to our noses, spray air freshener, and light a scented candle just so we can wear our chosen group again and not have to go to the wash.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and of the plate, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25-28). We are the scribes and Pharisees. I am a scribe and a Pharisee. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.