I’m sitting here thinking about these words that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees recorded in Matthew 23:25-26:
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.
We put in an enormous effort into cleaning the outside of the cup. What I mean by this is that our energy is largely spent on trying to get the external aspects of our life right. We want a good job, good relationship, healthy finances, nice home and more. Of course we do! All of those things serve to make life happier and more comfortable. The problem comes when it doesn’t work. We so often find that external solutions can’t fix internal problems. We see this in the bible also.
-Being tall, talented and terrific didn’t stop Saul from becoming a bad king
-The building of the temple didn’t stop Israel’s issues with idolatry.
-Being a prophet didn’t stop Jonah from being angry with God for being too merciful
-Statements of repentance didn’t stop the Babylonians invading Israel and the temple being destroyed
-Peter’s statements of faith didn’t stop him denying Jesus when the pressure came on.
-The spiritual gifts of the Corinthian church didn’t stop them becoming spiritually corrupt
For the Pharisees they didn’t want to be ‘Godly’ as much as they wanted to be seen being ‘Godly.’ Their actions were more about reputation and status than they were about knowing God and making him known. The reality is that we all have mixed motives. Our ego gets in the way often but there’s a deeper motive that’s also at work. This is the motive that stems from us being made in the image of God and of having eternity set in our hearts. This means that the only way to live from our deeper motives is to continually bring our egos to the cross of Christ and die to them there. Dying and rising is not a once and for all event. It is a rhythm of life, an ongoing process and a never-ending prayer.
We see this at work in another story Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our prayers often involves asking for external factors to change. This parable is an invitation for our prayers to also involves asking for our hearts, minds and motivations to change. It is to humbly accept that we need God’s mercy all the time. We are asked to die to the pride that causes us to look down on others even as we think of ourselves as righteous in doing so. We are then asked to come alive to the humble life of complete and utter dependence on the life of God in us. May we do so patiently, graciously, kindly, lovingly and hopefully.
Grace and peace.