October 23, 2016, Putting Our Face On – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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If you’ve ever watched the show “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” you might remember the scene where the kids are all getting ready to go out trick-or-treating. And one of the characters, Lucy, puts on an ugly, mean-looking witch mask and says, “A person should always choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality.” This is funny, of course, if you know anything about the Peanuts characters, because Lucy is the one who is almost always mean and grouchy.
I think it is generally true that people are not very good at knowing themselves – and not necessarily because they aren’t self-aware enough, or don’t think about themselves enough. People mostly don’t know themselves because they don’t want to: because if they catch a glimpse of who they really are, they don’t like it all that much. It is much more comfortable to put on a mask, like Lucy, and to choose what we’d like people to see when they look at us.
Brennan Manning, who was a Catholic Franciscan, and a writer, once wrote that as a child he was so sure that he was unlovable and unacceptable as he really was, that he invented a false self, a public face, someone people would like and admire. His false self did everything right: got good grades, had good manners, was successful – but all the time, inside, his real self was continually terrified, year after year, by the feeling that he was utterly alone, that he could never dare to allow anyone to know who he really was.
It is the easiest thing in the world for Christians to fall into the trap of wearing the Mask of the Righteous. We have accepted the general misconception that to be a Christian means to be “a good person”, which means somebody who does all the right things and especially who doesn’t do the wrong things; somebody who avoids getting his hands dirty with the messier side of life in the world. Just think of the stereotype of the Christian leader – perfect hair and perfect teeth, well-manicured hands and shiny shoes and button-down shirts that have never seen a single wrinkle, right?
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story came into the synagogue to pray, wearing the Mask of the Righteous. He stood up confidently to pray, and he ticked off on his fingers everything he was doing right. “I fast twice a week,” he told God, and I give a tenth of everything I get.” That’s actually pretty impressive – not many of us could say the same, I imagine. And he thanked God for it.
Luke wrote that Jesus told this story to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. And the word in the Greek means more than that he “trusted in himself”. The fuller meaning of the word is that that man “convinced himself” that he was righteous. “I fast twice a week,” he said, “I give a tenth of everything I get. At least I can say that I’m better than that grovelling tax collector over there.” The Pharisee had to convince himself that he was righteous, because he didn’t dare admit to that part of himself, deep down, that he hated, that he was ashamed of, that he could never allow anyone see, least of all God.
But the tax collector – well, his life was too much of a mess to even think of wearing the Mask of the Righteous. As a tax collector, he made his living working for the enemy at the expense of his own people. There was no pretending he was a good and faithful Jew. There was no denying the revulsion he felt when he looked at himself, no brushing aside his shame. All he could manage as he entered the synagogue was to stand far from all those who were so much more righteous than he was, and to beg that God would be merciful to him – not because he deserved it, but because he needed it, desperately. He had no hope in himself.
And Jesus told his listeners: “Here’s the thing: it was the tax collector who went home righteous, not the Pharisee.”
People tend to think that the way to deal with the stuff inside us that we are ashamed of, the stuff we just really don’t like, is to try harder: just shove the shame down deep and try all the harder to live up to that perfect self we think we ought to be. That’s why human religions are all about rules and regulations and punishments and measuring ourselves against one another.
But the good news of Jesus – and it is very good news – is that the only way to deal with all that we despise about ourselves is to lay it all out on the table. The truth, Jesus said – not the Mask, the truth – will set us free. Because it is when we have honestly told God just how unlovable and unacceptable we think that we are, that we discover, to our shock and amazement, that we are loved. And we are accepted. And faith is the courage to accept acceptance.
Jesus told his story to some who had convinced themselves that they were righteous. But more than that, he told the story to some who regarded others with contempt. The inevitable result of legalism, carrying the burden of our false selves, wearing our Masks of Righteousness to prove we are good enough, is that we end up regarding our fellow man with contempt. How can we love our neighbor if we are busy needing to prove that we are better than he is? How can we have compassion for our neighbor if we are offended by seeing in her all that we despise in ourselves?
The two great commandments of our faith are these: to love God with all our heart and mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourself. And the whole idea of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves is a tricky one, I think, because we are not very good at loving ourselves. We try to talk ourselves into confidence by comparing ourselves to all the other schmucks who make us look good. “I thank you, God, that I am not like that loser down the street, or that sleazebag I saw on TV” – there’s always somebody out there who can make us look a little better by comparison, just like the Pharisee in the story, who thanked God that at least he wasn’t a mess like that poor tax collector over there. But as Jesus told us, that didn’t end well.
The tax collector in the story, on the other hand, went home righteous, which doesn’t mean that he went home a flawless person who did everything right and followed all the rules. It means that he, and not the Pharisee, found himself heading back home in a right relationship with God, a relationship of trust and of honesty. He had dragged his immense burden of shame and guilt and self-loathing into the synagogue. But he went out as a free man, forgiven, loved, a new creation. But the Pharisee just went back home with his old mask still in place, lugging the same old burden of self-justication that he had brought into the synagogue.
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is not another mask we have to wear. It is a discovery that we are loved and treasured in the utter imperfection of our naked, maskless selves, and because of that we are free to love our imperfect neighbor. We are like a woman who was afraid for her husband to see her without her makeup – what my Mom used to call “putting her face on”. It is on the day that that wife really understands, really believes, that her husband loves and treasures her as she is, flaws and all, that she really knows what it is to be loved. How many of us, men or women, really know what it is to be loved just as we are. How many of us believe that we are loved as we are, right now, unconditionally, all masks set aside.
That is the message of this story – it’s an invitation of love, like all words of Jesus Christ. He told this story to some who convinced themselves that they were righteous all on their own merits, and who looked with contempt at the people around them. All of us who have ears to hear, let us hear what he has said to us today. It’s an opportunity for each of us to search our own heart and mind, to recognize where we have been wearing the mask we want the world to see instead of our real self, out of our desperate fear that maybe we’ll never be good enough after all, that we will never be lovable, that we will never be acceptable.
But even better, it is our opportunity to follow the example of the tax collector, who hid nothing of all his very real guilt and shame, but only threw himself on the mercy of God. And that man went home righteous.