Meryl Streep is a hypocrite. She is probably the biggest hypocrite in Hollywood, maybe the world. Of course, there are lots of hypocrites in Hollywood. Eva Longoria, Leonardo DeCaprio, Morgan Freeman, George Clooney. Oprah Winfrey is a hypocrite too. That’s right, all of them! They’re all hypocrites.
I am using an older definition of the word hypocrite. Before it meant, well, hypocrite, it was just another word for an actor. So, you see, Meryl Streep really is a big hypocrite/actress, she may be the biggest hypocrite/actress in the world. Everyone who has ever acted in a play, TV show, the movies, or even in a backyard production of The Three Bears, is a hypocrite. You know, in the ancient sense of the word.
Now that I’ve defined my terms, it’s easier for us to talk about hypocrisy. We just need to talk about actors.
Actors are in the business of hiding themselves. It’s the nature of the job. In antiquity, they used masks and didn’t even show their faces. When they are really good, when they’ve hidden themselves so well that we forget about their other roles we can sort-of “believe” that they are the person they portray.
They do this for money and applause. Successful actors do make good money and they receive the approval of their fans. Even so, it is not the most highly regarded profession. It’s even been said that acting is not quite the occupation of an adult, and that it isn’t very hard work! Who would say such things? Well, Sir Laurence Olivier and George Clooney, respectively, that’s who.
In our Gospel reading this morning the Pharisees got some of their students and sent them off with the Herodians to try and trick Jesus into betraying himself. Herodians and Pharisees aren’t usually friends. But, like actors who may not really care for one another, they came together on this occasion to put on a good show, to act a role. If the show was a hit, they would have the approval/applause of the Pharisees and the Emperor.
Jesus saw right through the act, though. This is one of those Bible stories where we want to identify with Jesus because he so deftly parries every jab. And, not only is Jesus unusually clever in this story, but it’s so easy for him that he’s enjoying it. You can almost see the faint outline of a bemused smile.
After Jesus called their bluff, he went the extra mile and answered their question. Again, this is very clever. Jesus asked for a coin, the coin used for the tax. Possession of the coin, though, was a violation of the second commandment not to make images. This wasn’t just any image, either. It was an image of the emperor with an inscription which named him a son of God. So, this appears to be a real contest between one son of God and another son of God. But, Jesus did not use this occasion to preach about graven images, nor did he make any statements about taxes. That’s because this pericope isn’t about graven images, or about taxes, it’s not even about what belongs to whom. And, no, it is not an exhortation to cleverness either.
It’s about acting. Jesus’s first bemused answer to his interlocutors was, “Why are you acting?” He might just as well have asked, “Why are you wearing mask, pretending to be someone you’re not? Who are you really? What has become of your authentic self?”
By noting the image of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus on the coin Jesus wasn’t trying to trap those who had come to trap him. That’s not how Jesus works. He was trying to remind them of another image, the image of God on each of their souls.
To wring any kind of good news out of this passage we have to go all the way back to the garden, the Garden Of Eden. In the story, God had created everything that the cosmos needed to get started, but God decided to create one more thing. This one was special, though, because God created it in his own image. That’s right. It’s us. All of nature, from the cosmos to a cockroach can show us a path to God, but we’re the only species which actually looks like God. Certainly, the image is brighter in some than it is in others. But, it is there in each of us even though we sometimes try to hide it behind a mask.
We are hypocrites too, you know. Like the actors in this morning’s reading we ask questions which we already have the answers to. Don’t we know what we’re doing when we ask such questions? But we want to be able to say, “Well I just don’t know… the scripture is not clear,” “People of good will disagree about it,” “The theology hasn’t been done,” The time is not right.”
It sounds so pious, but Jesus is calling our bluff. “Why are you acting?” We are all hypocrites because we know how to do justice, we know how to love mercy, we know how to be humble. We just don’t want to do it and so we pretend to have a legitimate question. We’re just actors.
In what ways have you been an actor, untrue to your real nature as a God bearer?
In what ways have money or approval determined what masks you wear?
Are you wearing any masks which hide the image of God from this world which so desperately needs a glimpse of God?
The good news is that the image of God doesn’t go out, doesn’t wear off, expire, or become ineffective. It is on you as surely as your skin. How will you interpret the image of God for the world today? The image of God that is in you is something the rest of us need, we need to see God as only you can show us. So, please, because we need one another, take off your mask. Let us see God.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
This article explains the origin of the word hypocrisy. Our English word is most directly traced to the Greek word hypokrites. And that word is a compound-word — two words used together to make a new word. For example, Christmas is the mass of Christ, I am typing on a keyboard, I am not wearing makeup. These are all compound words, and so was hypokrites. The two words used are pretty simple: Hypo is a BOG-standard preposition which means under, krites means to answer or to reply. The way this relates to acting is that in ancient times the actor made statements from underneath a mask. In calling them out, one of the things Jesus did for the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees was to remove their masks, inviting them into a more authentic relationship with themselves. Even modern hypocrisy causes us to forget who we are. Fred L. Fisher, in The Sermon On The Mount, says that in this case, hypokrites would be better translated “misguided.” I do think that would work; but in my mind, it’s not as close as hypocrite.
You can read what some actors have said about their profession here. It’s fairly interesting.
Exodus 20:3-4… 3Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Genesis 1:26…Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness
Since the other animals know God instinctively, they do not need to look for God. The free will to seek God or not is one of the things which distinguish humans from other animals.
You may note that Jesus has never been interested in besting those who were against him. Being smarter, cleverer, more popular, or more violent is not the way of Jesus.
Jesus’s early followers paid taxes. At the end of Matthew17 Jesus told Peter to take two coins out of a fish’s mouth to pay both his tax and Jesus’s tax too. In the Lukan version, though, he was accused of having answered in the negative, prohibiting his followers from paying the tax, perhaps because he added “and render unto God that which id God’s.”