When the crowds of followers gather, watch for hypocrisy—in our leaders, in ourselves

“While the crowd was gathered together by the thousands, so as to trample upon each other, he began to speak to his disciples first: take heed to yourselves from the leaven, i.e., hypocrisy, of the Pharisees. And nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be made known. So whatever you say in darkness will be heard in the light, and and what you speak into the ear in the inner chambers will be shouted upon the rooftops.” —Luke 12:1–3

Who are the hypocrites that Jesus warns against here?

This passage starts by mentioning the thousands who have flocked to Jesus. Surely the hypocrites are members of the large crowd. But no. Jesus does not accuse the large crowds of hypocrisy, even though (chapter 9) it might be tempting to do so, since they don’t seem to know who he really is and do seem be glad to get a meal out of the deal.

So then the hypocrites that he is warning against must be the Pharisees, since he uses the expression “leaven of the Pharisees” and clarifies that he means their hypocrisy. And it is true that in the preceding chapters he has accused Pharisees in his context of hypocrisy. These days scholars will tell you that the Pharisees get a bum rap in the gospels. While the Sadducees dominated t he Jerusalem establishment, choosing to coexist with Rome and to enjoy the power that accrued to them through this arrangement, the Pharisees were distributed through the hinterlands. They were morally and religiously serious teachers. They wanted to make Israel holy by teaching the people to observe the teachings of Moses. Christians who know of them only through the criticisms leveled by Jesus get a distorted picture of them. And in this particular text, Jesus does not tell his disciples to watch out for those hypocrites, the Pharisees.

Rather, Jesus tells his disciples to take heed to themselves, to watch out for hypocrisy (“the leaven of the Pharisees”) in themselves. And he tells them this precisely when the crowds have become large.

Is this not a perennially applicable warning? Doesn’t everyone always think too easily of those other people as hypocrites? But wisdom in discipleship involves taking heed to oneself. And it is especially needful to take heed to oneself when one is a leader of a successful movement, ministry, or church. It was when the followers became vast multitudes that jesus warned his disciples to be really careful not about the multitudes, and not about those Pharisees over there, but about themselves.

We have to understand who we are and where we are in order to read the Bible with understanding. In the now rapidly dechristianizing but historically and residually christianized West, we are above all the place where thousands of followers have flocked to Jesus. Which means that we are above all the intended recipients of this warning.

When we read about “the Pharisees” (as hypocrites or otherwise) in the teaching of Jesus, we must not think of “the Jews.” We certainly must not think of Jews of our own era. But we also should not think of the literal Pharisees of Jesus’s day, except to ask who in our own setting are the analogs. And the answer to that question is all too obvious and yet impossible to see. Because it is us.

Jesus did not say “Take heed to (beware of) those other people and their hypocrisy.” Jesus said “Take heed to (beware of) yourselves,” because hypocrisy is the sin crouching at our own door.

“The Pharisees” in our contemporary culture are Christian teachers and pastors who represent the word of the gospel of Jesus in every city and town across the land, devoting themselves to instructing the people in the way of the Lord.

“The Pharisees” in our contemporary culture are Christian teachers and pastors who represent the word of the gospel of Jesus in every city and town across the land, devoting themselves to instructing the people in the way of the Lord:

  • “The Pharisees” for us are we enthusiastic evangelicals who cross land and sea to make one convert—and are in danger of making that convert into even more of a child of hell than themselves (Matthew 23:15).
  • “The Pharisees” for us are we complacent churchists of every stripe who are convinced that we know God’s will and rely on God’s instruction in scripture and are sure that we are guides for the blind and light to those in darkness (Romans 2:19).
  • “The Pharisees” for us are we smug Catholics who are so sure that our structure and our traditions make us the one true church that we spend our time bashing or proselytizing Protestants rather than bringing in the godless and the hopeless.

In any predominantly Christian religious landscape, “The Pharisees” are we Christians.

We are “The Pharisees” especially when we lay heavy burdens on sinners—not burdens that we have made up ourselves, but burdens that we derive directly and even correctly from Scripture, from God’s revealed instruction—and lift not a finger to help them (Luke 11:46, Matthew 23:4). Here we sit in the seat of Moses, lecturing the world around us, and the worldlings in our own congregations, forgetting that the way of Jesus was to acknowledge the piety and even the authority of the Pharisees and nevertheless to warn them, the teachers of righteousness—not those they rightly diagnosed as sinners—of hellfire and damnation.

Jesus’s own way was to lift the burden. The way of Jesus was the way of mercy, the way of acceptance of the rejected ones, the way of giving his own life for the condemned. Jesus’s way was—and throughout the gospels, Acts, and the epistles you can read the confusion and dissension that disturbed the community of Jesus’s followers as a result, because it is a difficult and dangerous way—to lift the burden of the legal and moral requirement that was hard to bear. The way of Jesus is to be the good shepherd, doing whatever it takes to bring in every last lost sheep, not the police officer charging the sinners with crimes and leaving them condemned and incarcerated.

Why are we always surprised when yet another Christian leader—another evangelical TV preacher, or another Catholic cardinal, or another leader of another especially successful and self-righteous local church—is exposed as a hypocrite? How can these disgraced leaders themselves be so surprised to realize what they have become, if they are given the grace to realize it rather than deny it? How could we, and they, possibly have expected anything else? Only by forgetting the warning of Jesus to his disciples in the situation where crowds of thousands flock to them: “Take heed to yourselves from the leaven, i.e., hypocrisy, of the Pharisees.”


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