“First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” Matthew 23:26 NRSV
Yesterday, I found myself in our backyard performing some much-needed trimming to a couple of small trees and a few boxwoods. Now, granted, these landscaping features are at the rear of our property and often go unseen except for us and a few family members who stop by. For the average person driving down Clemens Drive, he or she will never notice the trees or bushes or when they have need of trimming. Some people may suggest that it is no big deal and we should focus upon what can be seen by others. However, we know what’s behind the house and ignoring such a simple thing could become a more complicated matter if we let it go.
This experience over the weekend reminded me of Jesus’ words which are found in Matthew 23. The illustration used by Jesus may differ in that it involves washing dishes versus trimming trees and bushes, but I believe there are similarities between my experience and the point being made by Jesus. The context for Jesus’ words is that of a series of denunciations made to the scribes and Pharisees. Over and over in Matthew 23, Jesus uses the warning “Woe to you…” and offers further insight into why these groups of religious leaders should be careful concerning what they say and how they live.
In the verse quoted above, Jesus challenged the scribes and Pharisees to look beyond what others could see. That is to do some soul-searching and consider what issues may exist beneath the surface of their lives. According to Jesus, it is insufficient to clean the outside of the cup while leaving the inside untouched. To be fully clean, the entirety of the cup has need of washing. Have you ever experienced a cup or glass which on the surface looked clean enough to drink from only to discover some residual drink dried on the inside? It is usually not very pleasant.
Now, granted, Jesus was speaking of more than careful dish washing practices. He was trying to get the scribes and Pharisees to consider the makeup of their lives. They may have done what was necessary to look the part of being righteous, but their inner being left much to be desired. However, as with the cup illustration and my experience with trimming the trees and bushes, it can be easy to ignore what is unseen to others. Very few people will go into my backyard to see if my landscaping needs attention. No person can probe into the depths of our hearts and minds to see what lives there. If no one can see it, then maybe we can pretend it does not exist.
Such pretending will do us no favors in the grand scheme of things. For God sees and knows what it is that we are attempting to suppress in our lives. This suppression or avoidance does not make our lives better; it merely means that we are good at fooling others. What we portray to others is something which Robert Mulholland writes of in his work Invitation to a Journey. In this book, which addresses the subject of spiritual formation, Mulholland calls this tendency the living of “a false self.” We hide certain habits, attitudes, and practices in order to be likeable or acceptable before others, but it is by no means an accurate presentation of who we are at our core.
It is uncomfortable to address what lies beneath the surface of our lives because not one of us wishes to think of ourselves as “being all that bad.” With that being said, we leave all that is contrary to Christ untouched and hope that even as we overlook it, someway, somehow, God might do the same. Such thinking quickly proves to be a fallacy for God will not approve of mixed loyalties or an exterior which is inconsistent with one’s interior. What is maintained within our heart of hearts, although unseen by humanity, is the truest indication of who we are. This is the territory within which God specializes. We can do much to clean up the surface of our lives, but it is only through an “expert touch” that we experience the transformation needed for our inner being to match our outward practice.
Of course, the divine work which is needed is by no means easy or without struggle. I suggest that it is not easy because for many of us the “false self” has become a part of who we are. We accept it for what it is and perceive that our lives cannot be otherwise. It also becomes easier to maintain what we know and have become comfortable with than to risk yielding it to God’s grace. As difficult as that may seem, it is the only proper remedy to our inner struggle and becoming complete in Christ. This transformation involves:
- Being honest with ourselves and God that we do not have everything as it should be on the inside.
- Asking God to forgive us for the inconsistences between who we are inside and how we act on the outside.
- Allowing God to purge that which hinders our growth in Christ in spite of its painfulness.
- Letting God replace what has been purged with that which creates a genuine lifestyle in Christ.
While the aforementioned points may read like the steps taken by someone who is making his or her initial profession of faith, they are necessary for all of us when we find our inner being and outer doing at odds with one another. God sees us for who we truly are and what exists on the inside matters to him. That being said, it should matter to us as well.
Together in Christ,
The Reverend Kelley Smart