Halloween is the ultimate holiday of “pretending.”
On Halloween we dress up and “pretend” to be someone or something other than ourselves. On Halloween we “pretend” to believe that the people jumping out at us and scaring us in the “haunted houses” we paid $25 to get into are monsters and zombies.
On Halloween we happily “pretend” that the scariest stuff in life are those things that “go bump in the night.” On Halloween we revel in “pretend” bumps instead of bumping into the terrifying realities of evil and cruelty that appear on any street, in any office, at any school, in broad daylight, on any given day — and that’s just a rundown of the terrors of the last two weeks.
Yesterday, the day after “All Hallows Eve,” is known in the liturgical calendar as “All Saints Day.” “All Saints” is a celebration and commemoration of those who were never about pretense, but who devoted their lives to expressing true faithfulness and genuine piety. The church lives, not by the majesty of its beliefs but by the manifestation of its manifold witness through the magnificence of its “communion of saints.”
Who are these “all saints?” The “all saints” are all the everyday, ordinary men and women who live lives of humility and service in Jesus’ name and for his sake. They never “dressed up” or “dressed down” in order to exhibit some “pretend” piety. They never paraded their piety in peacock plumage. Generation after generation of these “all saints” make up the great “Cloud of Witnesses” (the church had “The Cloud” before Microsoft) who make it possible for the historic Jesus of the first century to become the living Christ of the twenty-first century.
The community of “all saints” didn’t need to play “pretend.” Their lives witnessed to the living presence of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, who made them all into “transformers,” transformers of lives, transformers of hopes, transformers of dreams, transformers of the world they lived in.
Today, the day after “All Saints Day,” the scripture in Matthew 23:1-12 is once again warning us about the poison of pretense, the mistake of wearing masks of piety. Jesus recognized both the genuine faith and the grand folly that was combined in the Pharisees’ religious system. Jesus gave an “example” involving “phylacteries” and “fringes” — admittedly not your ordinary signs of excess in a 2014 neighborhood.
Phylacteries are leather boxes with long leather straps that are bound to the forehead and around the right arm and worn during a devout Jew’s daily prayers. Inside these leather boxes are written copies of various biblical verses.
The “fringes” Jesus speaks of are traditional signs of faith attached to a garment worn by all observant Jews. These “fringes” show themselves no matter what else the individual is wearing. In sum, they subtly “advertise” the wearer’s faithfulness.
Jesus’ criticism is not about wearing phylacteries or fringes. It’s about wearing Humvee-sized phylacteries and Ferrari fringes while living a Fiat-sized faith. Both phylacteries and fringes were traditions that had been established as signs of humility and faithfulness. But they had been “souped-up” and “super-sized” by some of the most favorable and revered religious authorities, transforming humble holiness into Humvee holiness and Ferrari performances. Those wearing the over-sized phylacteries and falling down fringes were simply engaged in playing “pretend,” dressing up for a Halloween party, not living the life of one of the faithful, not embodying the daily witness of an “all saint.”
Jesus never paraded his identity. Even after his resurrection, the greatest event in the history of the world, he didn’t flaunt his power and presence. In fact, Jesus’ life and death were public, but his resurrection was private and almost secret.
He repeatedly asked his disciples who they thought he was, what they thought he was doing, where did they think he came from, what were others saying of him. Jesus ate at the homes of the outcasts and the illegals. He washed the feet of his students. He hung out with the pariahs of his day, lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus had no interest in the appearance of righteousness, only the application of righteousness. Whereas other teachers were masters of abstraction, Jesus was a master of personalization. He knew people not by appearances or pretenses or by what they did. He knew individuals by name.
For Jesus, the blind weren’t just blind, and the demon possessed weren’t just demon possessed, and the lepers weren’t just lepers. For Jesus each one was a valuable person, a child of God. This is what scandalized those with their Humvee holiness and Ferrari rituals: for Jesus, sinners were never just sinners, they were people to love
There are two things we all know about “profiling.” First, it’s illegal and it’s wrong. Second, it’s what each of us instinctually does every day. We all judge those we encounter on some “gut level” regardless of what we believe and hope and pray for. We like the UPS guy. We cannot stand the checker on Aisle 6 at the grocery store. We know there is some kind of problem with the guy who wears shorts and a fuzzy hat as he wanders the neighborhood every day. We make judgments, “that is good”. We make judgments, “that is bad”.
The Pharisees “judged” all those who failed to live up to their standards as moral failures, inferior spiritually and unsuccessful citizens. Jesus challenged those assumptions. Jesus dared us to look beyond our instinct to “profile” and instead to seek out a relationship, a true connection, with those who did not have long enough fringes, big enough bank accounts, or normal enough looking lives. Jesus expects his disciples to give each person the grace of acceptance that divine love demands.
Jesus was famous for not looking on the outward surfaces. In Mark 12:14 it says “They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” The original Greek for “you pay no attention to who they are” or “you do not look on the outward appearance” translates literally “you do not look on the face” or “you do not look at faces.” In other words, Jesus does not look on the surface. Jesus does not look on faces — at face values, at face lifts, “on the face of it.” Jesus looks on the heart. Jesus looks behind the face at the deeper truths of the heart. Jesus see the beauty in each of us, even that person you turn around to avoid.
We have a God who doesn’t look on outward appearances (1 Samuel 16:7; John 7:24, 2 Cor.5:12). Jesus looked beyond the face to the heart, to the beautiful in each person. We don’t need a people of Humvee holiness, but of heart holiness, or humble holiness.Blessings,