We live in a society that often seems obsessed with how we look… the clothes we wear, the way our hair looks, or the state of our skin, whether we eat right, exercise, look buff, whatever… We are obsessed with how things seem, how they look, what impression we give.
But that’s not a new phenomenon, as the reading today indicates. Jesus condemns those who are obsessed with religious observance at the expense of true devotion – particularly those who actually use their religion to distract from the true intent of their hearts – a desire to be SEEN to be proper, to act in the appropriate way and to get credit for the way they appear. In the older translations of the Bible later on in this passage Jesus calls these types ‘whitewashed tombs’ – meaning it all looks nice and well cared for on the outside, but you really don’t want to know what’s going on underneath.
But for those of us who know ourselves, who have looking inside ourselves – we often feel the other way around. That we are afraid of what is inside us, or we are ashamed of what happens under the surface – we don’t want people to know what is going on ‘in here’ because we feel so inadequate, or bad – the word we often use in the Church is ‘sinful’.
It is hard to open up – to others, and to God, because we are afraid what they will see,
I don’t know about you, but when I pray about the God who knows all the secrets of our hearts, or when I read about Jesus saying ‘nothing that hidden will remain hidden but all will be brought to light’. When I read in the story of the choosing of King David that though he was the smallest of his family God saw what was inside him ‘for mortals look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart’. When the Bible talks about God looking within – I get a little bit fearful. It can cause a certain amount of anxiety.
What if God doesn’t like what God sees? What if I am not worthy, or God takes offence at something I’ve done, or said, or even worse – something I’ve thought?
I would love to be someone, and I hope to be someone from whom goodness overflows from within – as our reading today said. But I often feel as though I am not. I worry that all my good works, all the kindness I try to show, all the words I say are just a cover up job for my general feeling of brokenness and the wrong I know I am capable of.
There’s an urban legend that does the rounds every now and then about a University professor who called around a city at random and just says to whoever answers the phone ‘everyone knows, the secret’s out, get away quick’ and that a significant number of people did, in response to that random call, pack up and get out of town. It’s an urban legend, so I doubt the truth of it, but I do recognise that inside myself, and I am sure inside many of us, there is a feeling that we are perhaps just waiting to get found out. That there is stuff within us that we don’t like, that if people truly knew what we were like, if God truly knew what we are like, we would be rejected.
Well, here’s the secret.
God truly knows what we are like. And God loves us.
The more I read the Bible, the more I see the stories of our ancestors in all of their imperfections and the horrendous mistakes and the violence that characterised their lives, and the wrong things that they did – the more I see of a God who chooses to use imperfect people, who teaches us to use our mistakes to grow, who does not condemn us, who loves us.
So when Jesus questions the motives of the religious leaders, as he does in today’s reading, I don’t think he does it as a threat, or a condemnation – but as an expression of sadness at how we sometimes don’t let the light into our hearts. When I realise that God searches my heart, I realise that God doesn’t do so to condemn or judge me, but in order that I might open myself up to love, to hope, to faith.
The word is Grace.
Grace doesn’t ask us to be worthy. Grace doesn’t demand that we are good before we are loved. Grace doesn’t hold our mistakes or our wrongdoings up before us and say ‘you are bad’. Grace loves us – as we are, where we are, who we are.
Grace doesn’t call us to be perfect before we know we are loved.
Grace doesn’t demand that we get everything right before we are forgiven.
Grace doesn’t make us pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and do better. Grace works with us to transform us, to help us, to guide us, to strengthen us, to bless us, to love us.