Who's a Hypocrite?

March 10th, 2013
Promotional image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

This weekend, were you off to see the Wizard? The magical land of Oz and its colorful characters—created by author L. Frank Baum in 1900 and elevated to the status of cultural touchstones by the 1939 movie musical The Wizard of Oz—rarely fail to enchant audiences. The latest adventure from over the rainbow, Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, shows us Oz from a new point of view, that of Oscar “Oz” Diggs (played by James Franco), the wizard himself.

Oscar is a self-centered, cynical, small-time traveling circus magician in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Kansas who dreams of being a “truly great man.” When a prairie twister whisks him away to the fairyland that coincidentally shares his nickname, he discovers that its inhabitants await a prophesied, powerful wizard to free them from the tyranny of the Wicked Witch. Sensing a chance for wealth and fame, Oscar masquerades as this magical messiah. He uses sleight-of-hand, smooth talk, and sneaky stagecraft to convince people, especially the lovely witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), that he is Oz’s long-awaited savior. Once Oscar’s secret is exposed, however, the stakes rise higher than ever for not only the land’s future but also his chances of growing as, not a great, but a good man.

Who’s a Hypocrite?

Actors in ancient Greek drama wore large masks to depict their characters and to amplify their voices. The word for such a performer was hypocrite. Today we call anyone who wears a metaphorical mask, pretending to be someone else, a hypocrite. Hypocrites want to appear better than they are. Like Oscar Diggs, they want to be great in other people’s eyes, but may not actually be much good.

While hypocrites appear on many of life’s stages—politicians who break campaign promises; business executives who embezzle company funds; professional athletes who rely on performance-enhancing shortcuts—religion is one arena in which hypocrisy especially rankles. When people of faith, particularly spiritual leaders, profess to act for holy and righteous reasons but in fact serve only themselves, reactions can range from disappointment to outrage. Think of news stories about popular, charismatic preachers who live affl uent lifestyles, for instance, or the anger expressed (rightly so) at clergy who commit sexual abuse.

But religious hypocrisy also can take less public forms, and isn’t the exclusive problem of official leaders. We Christians talk about loving neighbors, but sometimes we don’t even take the time to learn our next-door neighbors’ names. Many of us sing “from God all blessings flow,” on Sundays but then we’re reluctant to give monetary blessings back through church and charity, though we don’t think twice about spending it on our personal whims. We claim our relationship with Jesus is of supreme importance, but we’re not always quick to tell others about him, let alone obey his commands. If we want to know where to start looking for hypocrites—there’s no place like home.

Youth and Truth

Youth are usually quick to notice and call out hypocrisy, including (and maybe especially) in the church. They will tune out someone whose pious talk contradicts her or his lifestyle. They want real relationships with people who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus, even if they aren’t perfect.

As one who ministers with youth, you have the opportunity to affirm teens’ desire for authentic faith by highlighting God’s desire for it: God wants “truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6, NRSV*). Challenge youth to examine themselves for and rid themselves of hypocrisy, encouraging them to live as “salt” and “light” (see Matthew 5:13-16), eager not for other people’s approval but for God’s, and pointing not to any “greatness” of their own, but to Christ’s.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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