This week scripture invites us to take a good long look at ourselves, as if we are looking into a mirror. I’m not a big fan of mirrors simply because I don’t like the way they make me look: older, heavier, and bald. But as Kathleen likes to remind me, the mirror doesn’t lie. I get that, but why do they have to be so judgey?
Today I want to share a timeless piece of ancient wisdom that helps me reconcile my distain to mirrors. You might be familiar with this saying: It’s not your outward appearance that matters, but what’s on the inside that counts.
Let me ask you this, when you look in a mirror do you judge yourself by other people’s standards. Or do you see yourself like God does?
The Bible shares this story about Jesus and the disciples being judged by the religious leaders for eating with defiled hands. [Read Mark 7:1-23] That is, they didn’t wash before they ate. I imagine one of them saying, “Wash your hands, you weren’t born in a barn were you?” I can just hear Jesus saying, “Um…yes, I literally was.”
Now there wasn’t a law that required people to wash their hands before eating. This tradition of hand washing came out of the priestly laws concerning ritual purity and holiness. Because the priest believed every Israelite should be as holy as they were, all Jews should have to wash up before eating like they were required to do.
As we have learned Jesus likes to turn traditions on its head. So we shouldn’t be surprised when he wants to know which is more important: clean hands or a clean heart? “It’s not so much what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles, but that what comes out of the mouth.” It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
James reiterates this when he wrote, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” James instructs us to be quick to listen and slow to speak; knowing our words matter because they come from the heart. He is very aware of how human speech can both build up and destroy. And warns us to think twice before bad-mouthing another person or judging someone who is different than you.
Destructive or vengeful words do not allow God‘s righteousness to bloom, and illuminate and radiate from our lives. We must bridle our tongues. Watch what we say. Think before we tweet!
This can be hard to do when you’re heart is stubborn, or arrogant, or filled with jealousy and spite. Jesus knew the Pharisees weren’t bad people, they just believed everyone should be like them. Many people and religious denominations still act this way. They scream our way is the only way. And they’re willing not just to die for this belief, but to go to war and kill others for it. Like the Pharisees, we are tempted to build a wall or arrogance and ignorance around our hearts… and call it holy! But Jesus came to destroy those walls and crack open our hearts.
If Jesus is correct, and I believe he is, the words that come out of our mouths speak volumes to our own hearts. More than defile us, our words and actions define who we are and to whom we belong.
So instead of using hateful or judging words, we must strive to speak in loving and caring ways. We must resist being retaliatory or divisive, and chose to be forgiving and inclusive like Jesus. This is what it means to be doers of the word, imitators of Christ, or as I often say…this is how you put Christ in your Christianity.
I often remind people, faith is a verb. It needs to be put to good use. While it might seem like Jesus is encouraging his disciples to break the rules. I’m not sure that is the case. As someone once said, “Rules allow rugby players to enjoy the game thoroughly; without rules, there would be bloody mayhem.”
James says, “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, will be blessed in their doing.” So maybe instead of being focused on a set of rules to follow, or what the world defines as right, we ought to allow the implanted Word that God has written on our hearts to guide our behavior. It is what’s inside that matters the most.
As many of you know, we have this beautiful dog named Daisy. She came to us already well trained and obedient. If we say sit, she’ll sit. If we say show me your belly, she’ll roll on her back and wag her tale with exuberant joy; anticipating the love that she is about to receive. Animals, like humans, can be taught to follow rules. But that doesn’t make one a follower of God’s Word.
Daisy isn’t obedient because she’s afraid of what might happen if she’s not. She does what we ask because she wants to be a part of our life, where love and belly rubs produce an endless amount of joy. It’s a natural response to want more love.
God wants to be in a love relationship with us – where the outward rules are obsolete because the inward rules are complete.
The Word of God becomes who we are. When God says forgive, we forgive without giving it a second thought. When God says love it just happens automatically. Imagine a world were such goodness can bloom organically – without anyone having to think about it, or struggle to do it.
I don’t think God is telling us to follow these rules or else. Instead, God is inviting us to be guided by what God implanted in our hearts – and to live it out so completely that when we look in a mirror we only reflect God’s righteousness.
Hearing the Word is one thing. But if you’re not acting upon it then, as James says, you’re only deceiving yourself. As Jesus tells the Pharisees, you know what to do but you do not do it. I believe that is what defiles a person before God.
One might say, “I really believe in Jesus and in the resurrection,” but those words are meaningless when there is no evidence of such faith when it comes to dealing justly or fairly with his or her neighbor. This is true about people as it is about religion and religious institutions.
It’s our actions, James argues, that make the difference between good and bad religion; or as it might be better translated, worthless and worthwhile worship. If we praise God with our lips, but not our hearts, then what good is that praise? If we have clean hands but a dirty heart…we defile what God made holy and good. Throughout the Bible we find proof that God doesn’t desire our rituals – but our good hearts.
True religion, or pure worship, are the actions that mirrors Jesus. Therefore backbiting, slander, jealousy, anger, vindictiveness, judgment, and revenge are not worthy of God’s righteousness or praise because they poison the heart where God has planted the seed of perfect love. Instead, true religion and pure worship watches out for the vulnerable. It cares for the widows and orphans. It defends justice at any cost. It stands up for peacemaking when the world wants war.
Both James and Jesus have called us to “take a heart check.” To look in the mirror and take inventory of the things that define who we really are: We are beloved children of God – made in the divine image of unconditional and everlasting love. Hold on to God’s love and do justice to that love so that God’s righteous lights up the world.
I’m challenging you this week to be doers and not just hearers. Do one or two things this week that
To borrow from a prayer by St. Theresa of Calcutta, whatever you decide to do, however you put your faith into action, may you do it in such a way that people no longer see you, but only Jesus in their midst. Amen.
Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4. [Westminster John Knox: 2009] pp. 14-25.
Love-Fordham, April. James in the Suburbs: A Disorderly Parale of the Epistle of James. [Wipf and Stock: 2014].
illustration by Mike Luckovich, 2018
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”