In an age of spin doctors, it can be hard to know the truth about anything we see reported in the media. Jesus of course is The Truth and calls us to be authentic, the same all the way through rather than just having a good public image. The scribes and Pharisees worked hard on their public image but Jesus had no illusions about what they were like on the inside. He challenges us too to be transformed internally.
The readings at the 2pm SLT service were 1Thessalonians 2:1-8, Psalm 139:1-9, Matthew 23:23-26. The reflection follows:
One advantage of having a computer engineer for a husband is that I have always been surrounded by computers which are pretty up to date. When most households had no concept of the ‘home computer’ we had one which Phil had built and we used it a fair bit. When playing games on a computer at home was a fairly new form of entertainment, we had a Texas Instruments TI-99 and I spent the early hours of the morning quite often trying to reach the next level of Space Invaders. Things have moved on a bit and I now have a powerful gaming PC and a similar laptop to enable me to be here in SL, though I would contest the opinion that this is a game!
Of course, one of the wonderful things about computers is their word processing ability. No more is it necessary to laboriously type out documents, starting again if the content is revised, retyping a page if you make a mistake. Now it’s possible to type stuff and correct it easily, getting it absolutely right before printing it. Phil and I used our early computers to do word processing and actually got paid for it on occasion. We did two Masters theses for students. One was about chemistry and had complex formulae in it. In those days, in order to do anything other than have the standard style of text you had to type in control codes which told the particular text to look different. There were codes for subscript and superscript, for bold, italic, underline and so on. One code had to be put in front of the piece of text to switch the format on and one after it to switch the format off. The only difference you saw on the screen was the green code either side of a piece of text. It was only on printing the document out that any formatting became apparent, and any errors you had made! Getting that chemistry thesis right was a nightmare with many print outs and subsequent corrections, and all in the time when information was saved on cassette tapes, so took ages to save after each correction.
Eventually there was the joy of WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get. You simply marked the text to be formatted and then clicked on what you wanted. On the screen you saw the effect. So if you said BOLD the text appeared in bold on the screen and so on. You could see exactly what you had told the word processor to do and where you had made a mistake. Everything was plain and in the open, and that is still the case now. Word processing is so much easier than it used to be.
I doubt if Jesus had come across the Aramaic equivalent of WYSIWYG but that is pretty much what he is talking about in the short Gospel passage for today. The scribes and Pharisees looked great on first inspection, a bit like our old word processing used to do with its formatting codes. It was only when you wanted to see the results that any problem appeared, just like when we printed what we hoped would be a properly formatted equation. These apparently fine, upstanding pillars of the religious establishment, who wanted so much to be right that they weighed out their herbs in order to be sure to give a full tenth to God, only looked good at first glance. If you were looking for the right result – justice, mercy and faithfulness – you were wasting your time. What you saw was most certainly NOT what you got.
I suppose the modern equivalent would be ‘spin’. Political parties have ‘spin doctors’ to make sure that things look good, that bad news is dressed up well or hidden behind good, that the mistakes of those in power suddenly become strengths. What you see looks great, but the truth is often very, very different. In the end we know that the result is lack of trust in public institutions and national leaders. We become suspicious that we are being tricked and even if all is above board we are not likely to believe what we are told.
The religious leaders in Jesus time were so busy looking good in the details that they missed the big picture. To use Jesus’ language they strained out the gnat and swallowed a camel. Jesus had a wonderful turn of phrase! They were dealing with outside appearances, just like spin does, but Jesus said look inside. There is the challenge. Changing the outside just requires a bit of acting to fool people, twisting the truth here or there, or being a little economical with it. Changing the inside is much harder work.
At first when I was thinking about this, I thought it was about being honest with other people, and I still believe that’s part of it. However, think of the problem of honesty as it comes from a child. ‘Why is that lady so fat and ugly, mummy?’ Mummy tries to disappear among the tinned peas in embarrassment. The child is just saying what she thinks, no spin, no dishonesty. Later she learns that you don’t say what you are thinking. You may think that the woman is fat and ugly but you say, ‘You look really smart today, Mrs Jones.’ Why do you do that? Because otherwise you will offend Mrs Jones by the unkind thing you were thinking. Somehow dishonesty becomes the loving thing to do.
What Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees goes beyond being polite so that you don’t offend. He wants them to be honest, but in order to be honest and not cause offence, what they are like on the inside must change. He is asking them to become a seamless whole, the same all the way through. This is the complete opposite of spin. Spin changes the outside and leaves the inside untouched. Jesus says change the inside and that will shine through to the outside automatically.
Transformation is what the Christian faith is all about. We are to be changed into the image of Jesus. It’s not easy to do and we can’t do it alone. That change is the work of the Holy Spirit who helps grow within us the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.
In this life we will be works in progress and we will get things wrong. Then honesty becomes difficult because we are often afraid of what people will think of us. We may even like to hide the truth from ourselves if at all possible. We might get away with hiding for a time, as the old saying goes ‘You can fool some of the people for some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people for all of the time.’ Eventually, if we are dishonest we will get tripped up.
Even if we could hide our faults from everyone forever, we cannot hide from God. The psalm makes it plain that there is simply nowhere to go. God can see us inside and out, and God still loves us. May that give each of us the patience to accept ourselves as we are while continuing to pray that the Holy Spirit will work on us to make us all that we should be.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor