S: Matthew 15:8,9 ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.’
Matthew 15:16-20 So Jesus said, “Do you also still not understand? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the belly, and then out of the body? But the things which proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart, and they defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands doesn’t defile the man.”
O: In Malaysia, people often get caught up in an outward display of piety instead of inner holiness. But before we gloat at the Muslims, remember that we Christians are also susceptible to this disease of the Pharisees.
In fact, Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs — beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people's bones and all sorts of impurity (Matthew 23:27) often applies to people in the church as well.
One upon a time, I was a young 20-something with all the answers. I had had a great education; I'd married my grade school crush; and, even converted to this cool, new Orthodoxy thing. I was ready to be right about just about anything at the drop of a hat. And, I'll admit, being right is still my most favorite thing and most frequent sin. I was walking home from work one sunny day on Galveston Island — worried about finances. Our lab had just lost a big grant and things were precarious. And, I ran into 2 homeless men on the seawall. They asked for money. They were hungry. And, one was honest enough to say he needed a drink as well.
Full of the "I am a fully paid-up, church-going Christian" righteousness, I ran home to fix them something to eat. From my years of working with the homeless (almost a decade by this time), I knew that it needed to be something that the alcoholic stomach could digest and that someone with poor teeth could eat. While I was searching through the fridge, I came upon two mini bottles of expensive champagne we had been saving. Combining my newly researched Orthodox understanding that I was to give alms and not judge people about their addictions or sinful state and my understanding from working with the homeless that an alcoholic who suddenly has no alcohol can suffer terrible withdrawal, I bundled the mini bottles with the lunch and headed back to the seawall. They were still there. They were happy with what I had for them and started to eat the yogurt immediately. Then, the honest-about-needing-a-drink one saw the champagne and something changed. He looked up at me as a person looking at another person. We were no longer players in his little repeat performance skit of begging. He smiled. And, drank the cool, expensive champagne. And, we talked for a while.
After a few minutes, I took my leave and from my position as his spiritual better — happy with the results of my beneficence — I said, "Well, I better get going. I have church tonight. I'll be praying for you, Anthony." And, he very kindly replied with a voice that gently corrected me for my false pride and fake righteousness: "If you will pray for me, I will pray for you." And for reasons I didn't understand yet, I walked away, silent and ashamed of my behavior.
When I walked into the house, the message light on the answering machine was blinking. It was a message about some additional work and funds for John. My worries about money had miraculously disappeared.
Weeks later, I ran into another homeless person. A woman begging at the local laundry mat. When I passed her about a dollar in change, the words just came out of me: "Please, pray for me." She sighed. Sat down and bowed her head and waited. She thought I was going to pray over her or lead her in the sinner's prayer. When she looked up, I explained, "No, I need you to pray for me." And that moment happened again. The moment when suddenly we weren't actors in our roles. We were people talking to each other. And tears were instantly spilling out of her eyes and she hugged me without shyness as if we were family who were greeting each other at Christmas and she prayed over me. No miracle phone calls followed. Although, there was a particular homeless man who prayed for me for years while I was going through infertility treatment in Boston. I saw him 3 days before I found out we were pregnant with Kate. He said it was going to be OK this time. And, I never saw him again.
This week, I encountered the damage that can happen when people see you as their mission field. There is praying for a person. And, then there is praying for the object of your personal outreach program. The eyes tell the difference. And, the damage to both souls in the second case can be considerable. If I was ever pompous enough to "pray for you" in the second way, forgive me. If you know me well, you know that I can be an idiot. And, on behalf of all idiots like me, I am so sorry if someone did that to you. I apologize for our united federation of pompous idiots. But, if you are the Christian with your life all together and bundled up in a neat package of goodness, please, I beg you — stop praying for people in this way and beg them for the favor of their prayers instead.
I'm sure the situation I found myself in this week came from a real desire to good in the world and help me — well, not particularly me, really. But you know, me as one of "those people who need praying over". And, I am sure that when these particular friends who were praying for me for so long look at my crazy life choices and all the evidence of my mistakes that follow me everywhere, that they think of me with the same pity that I had for the homeless for the decade I spent volunteering with them before I met Anthony on the seawall. (Yes, I still volunteered after that. But, it was very different.) But, it's dehumanizing. And, anything that dehumanizes another person separates us from God. Both of us. The pray-er and pray-ee.
A: Let us examine our motives when we do the “right thing” that we're also doing it in the right spirit. Let's not be so caught up in “tithing mint and cumin” that we neglect justice and mercy. (Matthew 23:23)
This morning on BBC News, I heard that Pope Francis, while not changing any Catholic doctrine, published new guidelines on family life that encourages Catholic officials to exercise careful discernment over "wounded families" and be merciful, rather than judgmental. I very much agree with Pope Francis on a lot of things. He is doctrinally orthodox but always seems to remember to interpret it in the light of Jesus' teachings about mercy and love.
Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)
P: Father, help me to be holy inside. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (Psalm 139:23-24) In Jesus' name, amen.
Note: this is using the SOAP method. For more information, see this page (not written by me.)