“Hypocrites!” Jesus leveled this harsh judgment with a single word, and he was just ramping up. After describing the people’s remarkable ability to predict the weather, he chastised them: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”1 The challenge was rigorous for Jesus’s original listeners, and it still is today for both professors and our students. The challenge is discerning the present time and learning to live with wisdom in light of and in the midst of it.
In most of my classes, we read one chapter of Luke each day. We look for course concepts and themes such as socialization, culture, kinship, or participant observation. Reading the text as social scientists invites the discovery of new layers of meaning, and it gives us an ongoing experience of cross-cultural engagement as we toggle between the Lukan context and our own. Jesus’s pointed words about hypocrisy in Luke 12 is the apex of my semester because discerning the times is what sociology and anthropology are all about. I can imagine him saying something similar to us: “Hypocrites! You know how to download the apps, consult Chat GPT and filter your photos. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”
One student asked an interesting question, “How is this hypocrisy? The people weren’t saying one thing and doing another.” We looked up the meaning of hypocrisy: hypo = too little, crit = thinking. The people weren’t doing something wrong; they were under-doing a good thing, under-thinking. A Bible expert tells me that “hypocrisy” traced back to the Greek has to do with judging and discerning. Thinking, then is a means to the end of discernment and wisdom. Lift your sights, Jesus encourages, and use your powers of insight to discern the dynamics of your life and times.
Another said, “Their culture just seems different. We don’t call each other out in public like that. Jesus seems kind of ‘in your face.’” She shrank in her chair as she spoke, withdrawing from the directness of the passage.
“What would we do instead, in our culture?” I asked. Quiet laughter emerged around the classroom as one student described our cultural norms. “We’d pretend it wasn’t happening, go home, and then blast our thoughts online, anonymously.”
In our cultural context, it would indeed be odd to call people out directly and in public. Additionally, we rarely gather in groups before a teacher—the college classroom is one precious space where such a configuration still occurs. In that setting, I do offer one direct admonition, and I have Luke 12 in mind when I do it. “Deep thoughts!”—I raise my voice, and I’m just ramping up—“You think about how to get a job, but why do you want a job? To work and earn money? Why rush and push to get ahead when what is ahead is your own death? What about our existence is worth caring about? What is the meaning of life?”
Some students easily rise to these questions, certainly those majoring in philosophy, theology, and English. Others smile at me the way you might smile at an elder unaware of their dementia. A few roll their eyes, as in, “there she goes again.”
I notice a different response when we talk career development, exploring the myriad professional applications of anthropology. When topics are more practical, eyes are on papers or screens and hands are writing notes. Financial security, well-being (especially mental health), and technology are perhaps the three most imperative topics that I address with students every single day. Come to think of it, those are the front-and-center topics in my circle of loved ones, as well. Come to think of it one more time, those topics occupy a lot of my consciousness even when I’m alone. The path of American life seems to have two parts: first, get ourselves together, summoning our technological acumen, our mental health, and our financial wherewithal; later, once those things are in place, ponder larger questions of meaning and purpose.
What is personal, practical, and commodifiable is important for people living in modern economies, as predicting the weather was for people whose subsistence depended on fishing. Like Jesus’s original audience, we must tend to certain practicalities in order to live. Jesus didn’t disregard that first part of the path, but a near-exclusive focus on it may be under-doing our amazing, God-given capacity for seeking wisdom through reflection.
Seeking wisdom through reflection is different than what is often marketed as critical thinking. I listened to a webinar about critical thinking, sponsored by a textbook company promoting a new book. “Students today really struggle with critical thinking,” the speaker opined, “and we know they don’t read the books we assign.”
The solution? Online tutorials embedded in e-books that have videos (no more than 2 minutes) and quiz questions (just a few) that assess student learning of the material they watched just seconds before. In a world of distraction, adding new widgets at ever quicker paces might just keep their attention for up to two minutes at a time, and that only until the next innovation emerges.
The webinar speaker concluded, “because they don’t read, these videos will at least ensure that they get the content.” I pictured broccoli covered with cheese sauce, an attempt to make a rigorous food palatable. Reading is the broccoli, and online bells and whistles are the cheese. Perhaps while aiming for the cheese, the student may inadvertently consume a bit of broccoli.
I only have so much time to be alive in this world, and I don’t want to spend it pouring cheese on broccoli. My vocation is not to deliver content to reluctant students by any means. My purpose is to receive God’s goodness, and that includes the goodness in Jesus’s rebuke. He reminds me to look unflinchingly at my own hypocrisy, the many ways that I under-think, aim too low, allow my days and semesters to be frittered away by answering emails, paying bills, learning new technologies, and consuming media that fills my heart with dread for the destruction of everything. In short, to notice the things I do other than receive his goodness and live by the light of His love.
He then calls me to repent—to turn—back to a habitus, a mode of carriage, that positions me to better receive His goodness. To do this every day and every hour, and to live this vocation in front of students, following my academic field as a guide, practicing the discipline of asking questions and generating answers as anthropologists do, and by doing so, contributing my widow’s mite to the long conversation within my field about what it is to be human and what it takes to live well in the world as it is, in this present time.
Christianity points people to very basic practices: personal prayer, communal worship, and the exercise of ethical responsibility in community. These practices are slow, not fast. They are rooted in tradition, not innovation. We do them best together and in person, not alone and on screens. Basic Christian practices call us out of our delusions of sufficiency: that we should focus first on ensuring our own well-being and survival before—or instead of—reflecting on what all of it means, or that we’ve already done the hard work by mastering the particularities of our cultural context, be it engineering, technology and media, or weather prediction and fishing. Viewed in this light, an antidote for hypocrisy is integrity: the wholeness, fullness, rightness, of a human person not only working for their own survival but also praying, worshiping, serving, and discerning the times in which they live, so they can, with God’s help, commit to their duty and find joy in doing it.
Christian faith can animate our teaching in so many ways. Luke 12 sparks energy and insight in a social science class, including the challenge of how to “be like Jesus” in bringing wake-up calls in a manner and voice suitable to the twenty-first century college classroom. Your favorite scriptures to teach are surely different than mine, as are the concepts and themes that connect your discipline with Christian teachings and spiritual practices. We share, however, a sacred calling to practice our faith in the presence of and, with God’s help, along with our students.