If hypocrisy is defined as simply not living up to the ideals one preaches to others, then hypocrisy is not a bad thing. At least it means that I have ideals, even if I fail them. No wonder the church is open to easy criticism on this account: we do actually believe in something which isn't all that easy to live. However, better this than believing in nothing at all and having no moral compass.
The question is whether I am aware of my failure to live up to the ideals of the gospel and the ways in which I twist the demands of God to suit myself and exclude or oppress others. If we are aware of the gap between our own lives and the ideals of the gospel, and I let this knowledge seep into how I live and talk to others, this doesn't really deserve the accusation of hypocrisy. We just call it sin, and calls from us repentance and humility.
In today's Gospel reading from Matthew (22:15-22) Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy. I thin we would just call it duplicity. The Pharisees pretend sincerity when all along they intend to try and trap Jesus. Jesus sees through them and cleverly slips through the trap while also embarrassing them. (They bring him a coin with a graven pagan image on it.) Although that they are acting in a way that their own faith would prohibit, and do so willingly and without any sense of caution, suggests hypocrisy.
In Matt 23 Jesus again accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy, and this time we get some explicit content to the accusation. Although in the first few verses of Matt 23 it sounds like Jesus is equating hypocrisy with saying one thing but doing another (23:3-4), Jesus has more in mind. The rest of the chapter is an extended criticism of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees citing example after example. Jesus' criticisms revolve around superficiality, pride or self-congratulation, and ignorance of the true demands of God (23:13-28), an ignorance (whether from a genuine blind-spot or willfully committed) that prevents others from responding to God. And, even more sinister, all this can lead to the scapegoating of the those who point out the hypocrisy. (23:29-39; see also 22:33-46)
How do we prevent ourselves from being hypocrites? This is especially important given that we all fail to live up to the gospel and have blind-spots that prevent us from seeing the extent of our failure. A couple of things can help us in this regard.
1. Repentance for both the failures we are aware of and those we remain unaware of. This last is important because it encourages us to remain vigilant for these hidden sins. And repentance leads to humility. (Matt 23:8-12)
2. Remain in living contact with the gospel to allow it to do its inner and outer work on us. Regular, living contact with the gospel is essential. And I think this contact should be both personal (e.g. reading and reflection) as well as public exposure through the community of faith. In the church I hear the gospel preached and see it lived, as well as meeting examples of failure to live it. All of this might help me learn something about myself and help me break out of my own small circles of self-deception and hypocrisy.
3. Judge as we would wish to be judged. (Matt 7:1-5) Repentance and humility while we are in regular contact with the gospel of grace will help us to judge as we are judged: mercifully, and with caution. This is perhaps the best way to respond to those who like to make generalizations about 'the church' or 'Christians' or 'churchgoers' or 'priests' and label 'them' as hypocrites. It is tempting to join them in their hypocrisy by pointing out their hypocrisy in making the generalization. Better to judge as we are, and wish to be, judged.