THEME: Hypocrisy in Religion

By: Father Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA

In our gospel reading (Matthew 23:1–12), Jesus indicts the scribes and Pharisees on three counts of religious hypocrisy. They do not practice what they preach; they burden others while failing to act themselves, and they act to make an impression on others. Besides, Jesus points out what is important in religion: the conversion of the heart to God.

While the scribes were the guardians, interpreters, and teachers of Israel’s Scriptures and traditions, the Pharisees professed to faithfully adhere to both the written and oral Torah. So, the scribes and Pharisees paint a good picture of what a devout Jew looked like back then.


However, they were more interested in looking devout than in being devout. They’re all attractive on the outside but rotten on the inside (Matthew 23:27). They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk when it comes to practicing the religious values they claim to hold dear.

Even in the present day, hypocrisy in religion is all too familiar. There are Christians who merely profess the teachings of Jesus Christ without making any effort to practice them.

There are Christian leaders who are more concerned with bringing glory to themselves than with serving God’s people and leading them to worship God. Are they any different from the scribes and the Pharisees? No!

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example” (Matthew 23:1–3).

The “chair of Moses” is a figurative expression indicating that the scribes and Pharisees have the teaching authority of Moses. It is also a piece of furniture in the synagogue; the rabbis delivered their sermons while seated on it.

Saint Teresa of Avila once argued that she would rather have a learned priest as a spiritual director than an unlearned but holy priest. She reasoned that she would get better spiritual guidance from someone who knew what they were talking about rather than someone who lived a holy life but couldn’t explain spiritual experiences.

Similarly, Jesus instructs the people to listen to the scribes and Pharisees; even if they do not practice what they preach, they are well-versed in the Scriptures and traditions of Israel. They occupy the chair of Moses.

“All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi’” (Matthew 23:5-7). What exactly does Jesus mean by phylacteries and tassels?

Phylacteries are two black leather boxes containing scriptural passages. Devout Jews observe the Lord’s command and strap the phylacteries around their left hands and around their heads during morning prayers (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4–5).

In addition, God instructed the Jewish people to sew fringes to the four corners of their garments so that they would always be reminded of Him and His commands. In other words, the tassels are knotted fringes that are attached to Jewish prayer shawls (cf. Numbers 15:38–41).

Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for widening their phylacteries and lengthening their tassels (Matthew 23:5), only to impress the people as devout followers of God. He condemned them for not practicing what the phylacteries and tassels represent. As a result, Jesus criticized their religious hypocrisy rather than their religious symbols.

A wealthy donor invited Zen Master Ikkyu to his banquet. The master arrived at the banquet hall dressed in beggar’s robes. His host failed to recognize him in this garb and so hustled him away: “We cannot have you here at the doorstep. We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu at any moment.”

The master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe, and presented himself a second time at his host’s doorstep. He was received with due respect, ushered into the banquet room, and escorted to the place of honor. He then removed his ceremonial robes, folded them up, and placed them before his host.

As Master Ikkyu turned to leave, he said to the host, “I came to the banquet hall a short while ago and was sent away with great discourtesy. When I returned dressed in my ceremonial robes, you greeted me most obsequiously. And so, I conclude that it must be the garments that you revere, not the person who wears them.

Similarly, Jesus asks us today: What do you seek in Christianity? Are you still a Catholic to impress your family, godparents, and Catholic friends? Do you go to Mass and pray your rosary to impress the onlookers? Do you live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ?

The sad reality is that when it comes to Christianity, particularly Catholicism, all the bells and whistles—the rituals, the beautiful liturgy, liturgical vestments and decorations, the hierarchical structure, and even fancy titles of ministers—risk getting in the way of or taking the place of what truly matters, which is a true conversion of heart to Jesus.

Jesus indicted the scribes and Pharisees because they exalted themselves by looking holy rather than being holy. They forgot the most important thing about religion: the conversion of the heart to God. “Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Today, we are invited to reject all forms of hypocrisy, open our hearts to God, and resolve to be holy rather than appear holy. Have a blessed and holy Sunday!



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