Thoughtful Pastor: Public hypocrites and the way of Jesus

December 18th, 2015

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I have a question about praying in public and the Scripture verse from Matthew 6:5. There is a man that dresses in a bright neon yellow robe at night. I’ve seen him in the daytime in a white robe and headdress as well. He carries with him a wooden staff that is longer than he is tall. He is goes all over the city, but mainly stays on a bridge praying for people.

Recently he was at a local restaurant for dinner. He came in blessing people and saying that he was praying for them. He came by our table and said bless you and I am praying for you. I remarked to my friend that it reminded me of Jesus telling his disciples to not be like the hypocrites. Matthew 6:5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.” (NLT)

What do you think about people who go around praying and drawing attention to themselves or about actions such as sports figures praying on the field? Are they the kinds of people Jesus was talking about? Or just what did Jesus mean when he said don’t be like the hypocrites? He also said that those who did these things already had their reward. Not sure what he meant by that either. Would really like to understand this better.

First, I would be unhappily embarrassed if some stranger started praying over me. When I was first starting my theological studies I was in conversation with a fellow student and mentioned some personal struggles. The student announced, “I am going to pray over you” and placed hands on my head while vocalizing a prayer of some sort. I remember feeling violated and angry — my personal space invaded.

Jesus lived in a world where people had far less privacy and where religion was far more practiced in the public square than in present times. Prayer on the street corners and in synagogues was so normal that most wouldn’t comment on it. So what’s with Jesus’ comment?

When Jesus called out hypocrites, which he apparently did with biting regularity, there were two underlying questions: One, “Does what you say here in public match what you do elsewhere in private?” Two: “Are you asking more of others than you ask of yourselves?”

In other words, if I insist that you behave a certain way, but don’t also insist that I behave a certain way, then Jesus properly labels me a hypocrite. If I have a reputation for offering eloquent and moving prayers in public, but then go home and systematically mistreat those with whom I share the closest companionship, then Jesus again properly labels me a hypocrite.

This is also why those who announce themselves publicly as religious and followers of God are given such public condemnation when closer examination reveals a significant disconnect between the public pronouncements and the more private actions.

We rightly recognize this as hypocrisy — and simply wrong. It needs to be called out. Ideally, we who do the calling out have also worked diligently to discern our own blind spots and areas where we ourselves operate hypocritically.

However, you and I can’t rightly pronounce judgment on the robed and staff-carrying public pray-er or the upward-pointing athlete. We don’t know the heart or see the private actions. We don’t know what kind of present rewards they receive. All we can do is hope that those rewards don’t see destruction if the disgrace of hypocrisy bubbles up as the real truth.

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: How do we reconcile the words of Christ in Holy Scriptures when he says, “I am the way, the truth and the light, no one comes to the Father but by me” in light of all of the world religions and beliefs, remaining inclusive of all of God’s precious children?

What is the way of Christ?

Look at what we know of Jesus’ life and impact on others: he routinely welcomed the outcast, touched the unclean, healed the sick, called out the evil or demonic, critiqued the rich and powerful, refused to give into fear, fought off temptations to take the easy way out, raged against injustice that kept people away from God, met people where they were, fed them when they were hungry, wept with them over their sorrows, refused to lie about who he was, received unjust physical brutality with grace and refused the satisfaction of vengeance, and then forgave everyone in his last words.

Go and do likewise. Then you will be following the way, walking in the truth, and offering the life to everyone you meet. That’s genuine inclusivity of all God’s precious children.

Email questions to A version of this column appeared in The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at

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