Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Inside Out

"How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too.  Matthew 23:25

What we value is where we spend our energy, time and attention. Jesus' warning to the Pharisees and legal experts is as true today as it was then. If we are focused on how we appear to others, we aren't focused on what is within us. Appearances matter in our culture. The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, our hairstyles, jewelry, homes, where our children attend school or summer camp--these can be all-consuming for people, the focus of most of their attention.

Withing the church we may find this emphasis on appearances acted out in a different fashion. Maybe we agree to certain positions in church leadership because they give us power, or we contribute with the notion that we can influence programs in the church. I've heard people say they stopped giving because they didn't like something the church was or wasn't doing. Life can be choked out of ministries when pride of ownership takes priority over the needs of others, when "our" ministry cannot be expanded to include people from outside the church.

Motives matter. If our concern is how we appear to others, our motive is not love of God. A story from the desert illustrates this: A brother asked Abba John of Gaza, "If I settle an account and afterwards discover that I tricked my brother without wanting to, what should I do?" John replied, "If the amount is large, then return it to him. If it is small, then examine your thought carefully, asking, from the contrary perspective--what you would do if you were tricked by him and were about o receive that amount; if you find that you would indeed want to receive it, then you too should return it. If you would not receive it, then neither should you give it, unless the person was extremely poor: for in this case, a small amount would make a big difference. In that case, you should give him what is fair."

This story warns agains prideful morality and instructs us to be motivated by other-focused love. If we insist on giving the amount when the other would not want it, our concern is on being perceived as honest rather than loving the other whom we short-changes. We are more interested in our own respectability than in valuing the other person.

It's especially significant that John says to examine one's thought carefully. Neglect of such examination keeps us from seeing what is at the root of our motivation. Self-reflection is the vehicle for turning our attention from the outside appearance of our cup to the inside. It's not easy to acknowledge the yucky stuff within us. St. Teresa of Avila, in The Interior Castle, speaks of coming to this realization as seeing all sorts of vile creatures in the lower parts of our inner selves. Most folks see that and shut the door to their interior, becasue admitting that ugliness dwells within us, good Christian folk that we are, is mroe than we want to know.

But denial does not make the ugliness go away. If we want to be rooted and grounded in Christ, in love, we simply have to deal with the junk within us. We have to clean the cup from the inside out.

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