When I was Vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu, a generous parishioner gave us the gift of a new processional cross. Malibu has a 1950s modernist building, an architectural landmark in its own right but very different from this building, so the church furnishings there are very different there from the ones here at Christ Church. The processional cross was made of highly polished brass and it looked really good when lifted high by a muscular surfer acolyte, especially as it glinted in the sunlight and reflected the light off the ocean from across the Pacific Coast Highway.
One Sunday not long after we received that cross, I noticed an acolyte looking rather intently at the cross. For a minute, I thought he might be unusually pious for a teenager. Then I realized what he was doing. He wasn’t pondering the mystery of the cross at all. He was combing his hair, and admiring his own reflection in the cross as he did it.
Like all teenagers, this boy was obsessed with his appearance. He was not unusually narcissistic. He has, in fact, grown into a mature, faithful, compassionate adult. But I thought about his preening in the reflection of that cross as I thought about these words from our Gospel this morning. Among other things, Jesus says this about the hyper-religious people of his day, the ones Matthew’s Gospel calls scribes and Pharisees:
They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. [Matthew 23: 5-7]
All of us can smile knowingly when we see a teenage boy looking a bit too intently at his reflection in a mirror. But Jesus’s remarks about those who “do all their deeds to be seen by others” probably elicit a different kind of knowing grimace when we think about how we all behave as adults. I can’t speak for you, but when I look back on my own life I recall many times when my behavior has been dictated principally by how it would make me look to others. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be authentically moral or generous or pious or compassionate. It’s more that I surely wanted you to see me as moral and generous and pious and compassionate.
Jesus’s critique of human moral pretension and hypocrisy often turns on our unwillingness to ask of ourselves what we demand from others. In today’s passage, though, Jesus turns our attention to a subtler and perhaps more dangerous form of human hypocrisy: the way in which we let what others think of us dictate how we will live our lives.
Of course, there is a good side to the social dimension of human behavior. We are social beings, and we learn to be fully human by habituating ourselves to the values espoused by our religious, civic, and political culture. Reputation—what the Greeks called klaos , the lasting fame whose pursuit drove the heroes of the Trojan War—has always been important in human affairs. We erect statues and monuments to those who we believe have lived exemplary lives. Each of us wants the story told about us to be a good one, especially when we’re gone.
But if we orient ourselves entirely to what others think about us, if we get all our moral and spiritual bearings from outside ourselves, then we never come fully into authentic living. Jesus’s point about the scribes and Pharisees was not that they were doing something wrong. His point was that they were doing something--perhaps something right--for no authentic, personal reason. They were obeying the law without having internalized the law’s values. They may have been technically following the law, but they were not organically living it.
Authentic human living—life lived on Jesus’s terms, and God’s—is respectful of opinion but is motivated from within. In the essay of his we all read when we were self-involved teenagers, “Self-Reliance”, Ralph Waldo Emerson says this: “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” His point is that a truly good, loving, selfless, moral act does not need to be validated by society. Such an act is its own validation. And if you do such an act you do not need to appeal to an external authority for either forgiveness or permission. For Emerson, as for Jesus, the goal of human life was authentic living. One learns to live authentically by living from within.
To live from within does not mean that we do not attend to the values or standards of our culture or society. But living from within does mean that we take the time and do the work to articulate and live out the values and affirmations that are most deeply true for us. Emerson’s point is, essentially, Jesus’s point. If you have made the values of the Gospel your own and not somebody else’s, and if you can hold your actions to the standard of your own highest values, then you do not need to appeal to the world’s opinion to justify yourself. Mercy, forgiveness, healing, blessing, compassion: these are the core of what it means to be a human being on Jesus’s terms. As Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, orienting yourself toward these values and away from the rules is not lawlessness. If anything, Jesus’s followers are called to a “higher righteousness” than are the rule scorecard keepers. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:20]
To live from within does not mean to withdraw from the world. Again, we are social creatures, and we become who we are through extended interaction with each other. Neither you nor I came out of the womb fully formed as the people we are. We have come to be those people in relationship—collaboration, enmity, love, conflict—with each other. So living from within does not equate with rugged individualism. It’s neither “I Gotta Be Me” nor “I Did it My Way”. But living from within does mean doing the work to connect my own story with God’s big story, to take from the faith and the tradition and my engagement with others those truths that connect with my own experience and make them mine. I believe in compassion, forgiveness, blessing, and healing because I have both seen and experienced them in others’ lives and my own.
I believe in crucifixion, resurrection, and transfiguration because those biblical events have connection in my life and the life of the world I inhabit. I used to believe them because, as a Christian and a priest I thought I had to. I believe them now because I know they’re true. And I know they’re true because I’ve lived long enough, with Bible and Prayer Book in hand, to be able to make and understand the connections. And I’ve had a lot of help from others along the way.
Last Thursday, the psychologist and author James Hillman died. He was an interesting and provocative figure, if only because he wrote a book with one of my favorite titles: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse. Hillman was famous for criticizing psychotherapy for the way it tended increasingly to pursue individual “personal growth” at the expense of a corresponding commitment to social justice and care for the world. He understood two things, both profoundly true. One is that we need to go inward. As he said, “There is a place for the strength of character and subtlety of insight that the investigation of interiority produces.” The other is that we need to go outward: “The plight of the world” has “certainly forced us to feel that we cannot go through the world for our own benefit and that we are actually destroying our souls by an attitude that pretends to save them.” [Both quotations, James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse p. 50, 51]
The scribes and Pharisees believed, as many in our world believe, that they could be righteous without being just and spiritual without being compassionate. They believed they could achieve personal purity in a broken world. What Jesus taught us, and what we come to know internally as we gather around his table, is that such a bargain is impossible.
We live from within so that we will not be dependent on someone else’s truth to be the guiding principle of our lives. If it is faithful, that inward living calls us out into a world whose brokenness is as much a part of us as our own most deeply personal story is. The world is not an obstacle to our salvation. It is the location where that saving journey happens. As we free ourselves from our need to have the reputation of being faithful, and as we make God’s truths our own, our inner and our outer lives will begin to resemble each other, and the more we look in the mirror—whether in the processional cross or in the bathroom--the more we will begin to see the face of Jesus reflected back. Amen.