In American literature, the biggest religious pretender of all time is probably Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. Gantry begins his career in the early 1900s at a little country church (while trying to seduce the daughter of one of the deacons). Eventually he becomes a traveling evangelist who steals from the till, chases skirts, and stays drunk most of the time; but his preaching is phenomenal, so he always has a crowd.
Granted, the evangelist type is an easy mark. Public religious figures are easily labeled as “hypocrites and charlatans.” Gantry wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. But his real wickedness was not his sins. We are all made of clay. It was his two-faced dishonesty. He did what he did out of pride, ambition, and self-glory. He was performing for the audience. That is hypocrisy.
The word “hypocrite,” in its original context, is a great old word right from the Greek and Roman theaters of ancient times that means “play-actor.” A hypocrite was a person who played multiple roles on the stage. But over time, a hypocrite came to mean a person who changed his or her mask for applause. As Jesus used the word, a hypocrite was one who played to the crowd. He or she was someone who performed for the audience – like Elmer Gantry – and at points, like everyone.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that hypocrites “receive all the reward they will ever get.” If you play for the crowd, he inferred, or if your ambition is to draw attention to yourself, then when you get it, you earned your pay. There is no further reward, benefit, or other prize. God has nothing for you but an empty hand.
Alternatively, Jesus offers a healthier way. “When you give,” he says, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you pray, go to a closet and shut the door. When you sacrifice for a cause, don’t broadcast it.” In other words, keep your religious activities on the quiet side; as much as possible, keep it between you and God. Otherwise, you risk corrupting what would be a good deed.
My friend Landon Saunders said it superlatively many years ago. Commenting on the religious tendencies for show-and-tell he suggested that we, “Wear our religion like we wear our underwear; make it rarely visible.” That’s good advice, indeed.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.