Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Inside or Outside?


I'll have a longer post on Song of Solomon later on today, but here's a short musing on the gospel lesson for Sunday (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23).

Where do we exhibit true religion--on the inside or on the outside? As my colleague Seth Olson noted in staff meeting this morning, all of Sunday's readings seem to ask a question about true religion. What does it mean to keep all of the statutes and ordinances that God gives his people as we read about in Deuteronomy? In James we are urged to "be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" since "religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." Finally, in the reading from Mark, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his day for "abandon[ing] the commandment of God and hold[ing] to human tradition." Together, these readings beg us to "look at [ourselves] in the mirror" and ask whether we are faithful to our core or merely pretending faithfulness where others can see it.

Are we faithful on the inside or only on the outside? How do we know? Going to church is a good thing, but showing up on Sunday isn't necessarily a sign of true faith. Giving alms to the poor, adopting orphans, and walking the tightrope of a holy life are all laudable things, but to what end? Are they empty practices or evidence of real faith? It's easy to say, "Well, God knows," and I'm sure he does, but I don't think it's a simple as that. I don't think our practice of faith on the outside is necessarily a black-or-white reflection of what is happening on the inside. It's always more complicated than that.

Outside and inside are linked. As Jesus says, evil starts in the heart and is then made manifest on the outside. That's true, but I don't think Jesus would say it's as easy as that. This is, after all, the same Jesus who tells the rich young man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. It's the same Jesus who says that where our treasure is our heart will be also. It's the same Jesus who urges the disciples to wash one another's feet. These are all "outside" practices that lead to transformation on the "inside." Sometimes it's good to wash someone's feet not because you're feeling humble but because you need to learn humility. The same is true of stewardship. With discipleship, outside sometimes does lead to inside, and the same is true with sin.

My physician tells me to limit my drinking to one drink a day. Why? Not because two drinks will be detrimental to my health but because a second drink is far more likely to lead to a third drink than the first. The same is true for drugs and relationships and the Internet (look for tomorrow's post on the Ashley Madison scandal) and just about any other vice that catches up with us. No one wakes up and decides to be a junkie. Outside practices like that extra drink or that one-on-one lunch with the attractive coworker can lead to trouble.

Jesus' invitation isn't to ignore the benefits or dangers of certain habitual acts. Sometimes habits lead to a change of heart--good or bad. Instead, Jesus is asking us to abandon the practice of judging others by what we see. Just as unwashed hands do not necessarily indicate an unclean life so, too, might ritually washed hands disguise an equally unclean life. Who is to judge? Only those who can see the inside. You can't see that in the mirror, but you can see it inside yourself.

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