I MET a man recently who makes his living by selling expensive household whitegoods.
‘Miele’ whitegoods, as it happens.
And he mentioned that, some years ago, he had a colleague who had his left upper arm tattooed with the motto of the company – ‘immer besser.’ (Always better)
On learning this somewhat startling fact I asked, ‘And was he made employee of the month for this bold act?’
‘No,’ he responded, ‘actually, we had to let him go – he was only on probation.’
I admit, I did laugh rather loudly at that point.
Apparently, the tattooed colleague thought the indelible imprint of the company’s favourite line on his body would make up for poor work ethic and an inexplicably high number of ‘sick’ days.
The whole episode reminded me rather of the gospel passage in which Jesus upbraids the scribes and Pharisees for their ‘hypocrisy’. (Matthew 23, Luke 11)
The emphasis placed on external show rather than interior conversion is aptly exemplified by the story of our tardy, tattooed whitegoods salesman.
But it also prompted me to reflect more deeply upon an interesting point, because I often encounter people who say the Church is full of ‘hypocrites’ – an argument often colourfully highlighted with stories of scandal and iniquity that have appeared in the news media.
However much I too might deplore these stories and wish they were not true, I am not always sure that the word ‘hypocrite’ is the most appropriate to describe the persons involved.
Christians who strive to live Christian lives and fail in the attempt – perhaps repeatedly – are not thereby rendered hypocrites.
They are sinners – as we all are.
We all trip and fall, we all sin.
And if we are genuine in our desire to follow Christ and regularly beseech the sacramental mercy of God, resolving to co-operate with divine grace more fully in the future … but nevertheless sin again, that still does not make any of us hypocrites.
It simply means we are and remain, sinners.
A ‘hypocrite’ is someone who publicly and often loudly professes to hold certain beliefs and positions but – deep down – does not.
‘Hypocrite’ is the ancient Greek term for an ‘actor’.
A ‘hypocrite’ is someone pretending to be a person other than they truly are, or to hold beliefs other than those they genuinely do.
A hypothetical finance minister in government could officially proclaim that public funds are in a parlous state due to tax avoidance and that people ought to be more willing to contribute to the state’s coffers – all the while himself employing every means to avoid paying tax on his income and investments.
But the interplay between that public profession and private action would not, of itself, make him a ‘hypocrite’ if he genuinely believes what he says.
It would simply make him someone who finds it difficult to live by his own standards and the standards he genuinely expects of others and believes are necessary for the common good.
By the same token, many people can genuinely believe certain actions and modes of living to be more or less facilitative of human flourishing than others – but still themselves have great difficulty in maintaining a life in conformity with those sincerely held views.
The obfuscation of this distinction between a sinner and a true hypocrite is, I suspect, part of the reason that many in our society seem so ready to defenestrate any individual who is discovered to have done something untoward – particularly if it is something that they had previously said other people ought to refrain from doing.
As Pius XII noted as early as 1946 – and as every Pope has noted since – our society seems to be losing, or has already lost, a ‘sense of sin.’
We have forgotten that we are all sinners and that, ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’
We have become all too ready to label others as ‘hypocrites’ and ‘criminals’ rather than what, in many cases, they are: sinners in need of God’s mercy, as much as the rest of us.
After all, which of us could bare the harsh light of public scrutiny upon the entirety of our lives?
As a rather prominent playwright of the early seventeenth century once wrote: ‘Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?’
The psalms echo the same idea, while highlighting a divine point:
‘If you O Lord should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness,
For this we revere you.’ (Psalm 129)
Only God can forgive the sins we commit, and only His Son can judge them.
While wandering around Jerusalem, Jesus made the point that some of his contemporaries were hypocrites.
No doubt some of our contemporaries are too.
But not all – and only Jesus truly knows the difference.
Some of those men and women we so happily label and castigate are simply fellow sinners with us, in need – just as we are – of God’s mercy.
Our Christian faith calls us to the most profoundly self-sacrificial life of love that is possible.
The fact that people have always – and will always – struggle to manifest this truth in their Christian lives is hardly evidence of inherent hypocrisy within the Church.
It is simply evidence of the reality of sin.
My whitegoods selling acquaintance encountered his erstwhile, tattooed colleague some years later; this time in Coles, where the man was now employed.
As it happens, he had retained ‘immer besser’ on his left shoulder, saying that it was ‘a good motto to live by.’
Not satisfied with this sole instance of indelible conviction however, he had then had his right shoulder tattooed with the motto of his new employer: ‘serving you better.’
Another good motto to live by, particularly for a Christian and particularly for the Church.
Let us hope and pray that our recent experiences of sin and – occasionally – hypocrisy within the Church function as a reminder that however many times we fall, our ultimate aim is to follow Christ in serving God and our neighbour.
Hopefully a little better each day.