Matthew 23 is a passage called, “The seven Woes.” In six of these seven woes, he uses the same phrase, “Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites.” “Hypocrite” is one of the worst insults we can call someone. It means a two-faced, lying traitor.
Jesus is for hypocrites, not against them. In the prayer of confession, we say we have “left undone the things we should have done and done the things we should not have done.” We are all to some degree hypocritical. To assume a stance of moral superiority, because we think ourselves less hypocritical than another is like two pigs in a sty arguing over which one is muddier.
But when Jesus calls these leaders hypocrites, He isn’t using the word like we do today. “Hypocrite” meant “actor.” It meant someone deliberately pretending to be someone else, who was trapped in a role he did not necessarily want to play. Acting was a job for slaves in Jesus’ day. Actors were owned by producers—impresarios—and were in bondage to them. They were not payed for their work and lived in servitude.
In Jesus’ day, no one knew the names of actors. They wore full body suits, complete with head-covering masks. Imagine the guy at Disney World wearing the Goofy costume. It didn’t matter who was in the suit, or whether he wanted to be there, just so long as he pranced on stage in a hot suit in the blazing Roman sun.
Actors only spoke what they had been told to say. The masks they wore were designed to magnify their voices. The man in the suit was unimportant. He was a prisoner of the suit.
The actor got no special treatment. There was no payment. The only thing he could hope to get was applause. Every so often the slave in the suit could hear the crowd applauding.
For a slave, any recognition was cherished, even if it was useless. Applause was all they lived for. Applause meant that someone somewhere saw what they had done and appreciated it.
It was horrible and exploitative--living anonymous lives in slavery and squalor. Applause became a drug for them like heroin, to help them ease their pain. They craved their daily dose of applause.
Jesus probably had been to a theater to see these Roman “hypocrites” on the stage, but did not despise them. He more likely pitied them. He could see behind their masks.
These religious leaders were trapped behind masks—living out their lives in hopes that people would recognize them and appreciate them. He isn’t condemning them—He’s pitying them.
Jesus compared them to actors trapped in a role, trying to live off the applause of others. Every day they put on their Pharisee masks and costumes--little men who were lonely and hurting who didn’t know God’s love, so they looked to the love of others by playing the Pharisee in public. They wore the faces society required of them. They didn’t want to be real, because they thought they couldn’t be real. They played the role of respectable people, because they wanted the applause. Other’s good opinions were like heroin to them.
On the Greco-Roman stage, characters didn’t change much. Every play had the same few stereotypes—the king, the fool, the heroine, the boor, the trickster. Each character was represented by a different mask. The plays changed, but the characters stayed the same. Over time, an actor might become better at playing one role than another, wearing the same mask every performance.
In our world, we get typecast, too. Everyone has their own mask they wear--the holy man, the mother, the father, the angry man, the clown, the responsible citizen, the rebel, the athlete, the nerd, the party animal, or the knight in shining armor. We don’t think of ourselves as wearing masks, because we have worn masks most of our lives. The role we play becomes our life’s work, and we don’t see ourselves as having a life outside of our roles.
When Bela Lugosi died, he was buried in his Dracula costume. Then there was Clayton Moore who in his seventies still dressed as the TV’s the Lone Ranger. These actors became so connected to a role that they could not have a life outside it. But sometimes we all take off our makeup, look in the mirror and face the person behind the mask. We must face who we really are.
When working with dying patients, the biggest problem is not dying, but losing the roles they play in life. They can’t give up being a mother, father, or caretaker. The masks we wear can possess us if we are not careful.
Parents must be parents. Preachers must be preachers. Bosses must be bosses. But those are just roles. God doesn’t love the role, but the person inside. If we don’t take off the mask sometimes our roles possess us and our souls are forfeit.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to seek his advice. Nicodemus wore a mask of spirituality and respectability. Jesus told him to be born again—drop the mask and be born again. Babies don’t wear masks. The rich young ruler wore a mask of wealth. Jesus said give it away. Sell all that you have and follow. A man came to Jesus, wearing the mask of a good son and wanted to be his disciple. He would follow Jesus, but only after he accommodated his family obligations. Jesus said to drop the responsibility mask. Let the dead worry about the dead, and just get real before God.
Our mask is what we do in life. It is our character. We must get rid of it to really have a relationship with Him. We don’t come to Jesus to become better at our roles. We come for orders, out of commitment to be honest before him. Our mask is the role the world assigns to us, which we take on so the world will approve of us. But in Romans 12:2, Phillips Paul tells us not to let the world squeeze you into his role. Seek the applause of heaven, not the applause of earth. You may have to wear a mask, but make sure the mask doesn’t become you.
How do we know if we are being swallowed up in our mask? We are getting swallowed up by our mask when--
1. When we crave the applause of others. One of the surest signs we are play-acting is when we crave applause. We want everyone to see our accomplishments. If others don’t applaud, we are hurt. Jealousy, envy, pride, and the desire to be noticed means we are relying on the audience for support. We all do this, unless we are very egotistical or very godly. Applause is an addiction that keeps us on stage constantly. We think we can feel good about ourselves.
3. When our mask feels uncomfortable. Do you feel tired from trying to conform to everyone else’s expectations? Then you are chafing under the weight of your mask. If that’s so, you don’t necessarily have to change jobs, families, or churches. You may just be wearing the mask wrong. Take off your mask and adjust it. Sometimes we hurt, because our mask is hiding deeper hurts, like a man who has a sore on his shoulder who is wearing a large, heavy mask. Take off your mask, get healing for your underlying hurt, and deal with your injury. Then you can better deal with your role in life. But if you don’t take off your mask for a time, you will hurt underneath it for the rest of your life.
We all need time away. Take a vacation, get some rest, and take off the mask you wear. Get out from under the burden of the mask for a while, and you may feel better. Most of all, never wear your mask to bed or to worship. Take if off in the presence of God and your spouse. Be yourself, not what everyone expects you to be.
4. When we are ashamed of what’s under the mask. Suppose tomorrow you had to give up your job of being a mother, father, doctor, mechanic, Sunday school teacher, or any of the other masks you wear. Would you be ashamed to show yourself as you are without your accomplishments? If we are ashamed of who we are inside, then we need to work on the person inside, not the outside.
5. When we are not free. Actors were slaves. They didn’t wear the masks, because they wanted to, but because their owners made them. Jesus makes us free from shame by His forgiveness on the Cross. Not only that, He sets us free from the need to be people-pleasers by assuring us that He is completely pleased with us. If we listen for the applause of heaven, then we don’t need the applause of earth.
When was the last time you heard the applause of heaven? If you don’t, it isn’t because God won’t applaud. We just can’t hear Him through the masks we wear. You have strained so long and hard to earn the love of people you will miss the voice of God, saying He loves us as we are right now without the mask. He speaks to our inner heart, and lets us know that He loves us as we are, without the mask.