If it weren't for Jesus, we probably wouldn't consider "hypocrite" to be an insult. Originally, it was a word associated with the theater. Ancient Greek actors wore huge masks during their performances, and the Greek word hypokrites denoted "the interpreter underneath" the facade.
Today when we hear the word hypocrite, we think of it as a person who acts in contradiction to their convictions, and a lot that has to do with how Jesus used the term in the Gospels.
Examining our motives
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses three areas of interest to the Jewish audience: charity, prayer, and fasting. And in each instance, He made the same point:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).
He was warning His followers about the dangers of religious observance. It's easy to fall into the trap of doing good things with the wrong motives. Sometimes we might not even be aware of the reasons we’re practicing spiritual disciplines.
That's why Jesus says that we need to be careful how we practice acts of righteousness. We get off track when we don't consider the motives for our behavior. When we start aiming for applause from peers, we can unintentionally forfeit intimacy with God.
Giving, praying, fasting
In each of Jesus' examples, he touches on a particular discipline. His first warning is that we shouldn't draw attention to our giving (Matthew 6:1–4). Don't announce it with trumpets. Or to make that more applicable for today, don't casually drop it into a conversation or post your charity on Facebook. Instead, Jesus tells us to do our giving in secret.
Then He draws attention to prayer (Matthew 6:5–6). The warning is very similar. Don't stand out on the street corners praying in a loud voice. Don't be like the hypocrites (actors) who love to stand praying in the synagogues.
Lastly, he talks about fasting (Matthew 6:16–18). This practice of denying oneself food for a period was intended to draw us closer to God or be part of a prayerful petition on someone's behalf. But Jesus warns against those who go out of their way to make themselves look as miserable as possible, so people will notice that they're fasting. For us, that could mean drawing attention to how hungry we are so everyone realizes we're fasting.
So no one can ever know?
Some have mistakenly assumed from Jesus' words that no one can ever know when we give to the poor, pray, fast, or perform any other spiritual discipline. But is that Jesus' point? No.
In each of these cases, He wants us to be careful that we're not doing these things with the purpose of being seen. It's OK to pray in public provided your goal isn't to have the people around you think, "Wow. That was an excellent prayer. She must be a really good Christian." Sometimes we want to share about a time that we gave to a person or organization because we want to encourage others to be generous, or we may want to encourage disciplines like prayer and fasting by sharing our experiences.
We need always to ask ourselves, "What am I trying to achieve here?" If the answer is that you're looking for the applause or approval of the people around you, it's probably out of bounds.
Seeking God's reward
In the end, spiritual disciplines are always an act of faith. When we pray, we're taking it on faith that God is real, listening, and cares about our prayers. When we fast, we're trusting that God recognizes the sacrifice we're making. When we lack faith that God's paying attention, we start performing for the approval of others.
Jesus calls those who pretend to serve God but are really fishing for approval from others--hypocrites. They're actors playing a part.
In each of these examples, Jesus promises us that God will reward us when our motive is to please Him. And ultimately, this entire conversation boils down to an issue of reward. You're going to be rewarded for religious observance. The question is: Who do you really want to be rewarded by?
Learn more about what it means to follow Jesus by reading, "7 Promises for Those Who Follow Jesus."