“What miserable frauds you are, you scribes and Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, while the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence. Can’t you see, Pharisee? First wash the inside of a cup, and then you can clean the outside.”
– Matthew 23:26 (Phillips)
I cleaned out my closet on Saturday. No, I didn’t ask if each item sparked joy. No, I didn’t thank my t-shirts. I was ruthless about it, as I always am when I clean or organize, because I do not understand why anyone finds sentimental value or importance in possessions. (Love those that do. Just don’t understand you). Plus I have the bad habit of wearing my clothes until they are threadbare, often finding it difficult and guilt-inducing to click that “buy” button for myself. And so I ended up with two full trash bags that went to the thrift store and a list of things that need replacing.
I’ve been thinking about this for two days.
It’s easy to clean out my closet.
Not so easy to clean out my heart.
Jesus, He gets picky the longer you walk with Him. He says that He has the right of Lordship over every aspect of your life. Even that little, secret, doesn’t-hurt-anyone piece over there in that dark corner. Always the perfect Gentlemanly Sovereign, however, He doesn’t force us to allow Him access. He doesn’t pry our white-knuckled hands from around the cherished thing. He waits. And He works – in situations, through others, in the quiet voice of His Spirit – giving us opportunity after opportunity to surrender.
The longer you walk with Jesus, the more intimately confrontational He gets. It’s not always loud or dramatic. It can be a quiet war, the kind where you’re continually pulling that thing off of the altar, only to put it back again, only to take it up once more.
Harder, perhaps, when your tendencies are toward the Pharisaical.
I understand them, these people with whom Jesus had such a hard time. When we read passages like the one above, it’s easy to assume that Jesus really didn’t love those who were so bound up in rule-keeping. Oh, but He did. He really did. He wouldn’t have spent so much time confronting them if He didn’t care.
The Pharisees have a bad reputation, and I can’t say that it’s completely undeserved. They did put people under bondage. The law that was meant to bring freedom and point the way to the Messiah became a curse. There is an arrogance in their interactions with Jesus; they thought they knew best. And that thought? It arose from fear.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and seventy years of exile, God’s broken people didn’t want to wind up in that situation again. Read Nehemiah. Ezra. Haggai. Zechariah. They stumbled, fell, made horrible choices. But there’s this general sense of, “Never again. We’ll stop breaking God’s law. We’ll rebuild. We’ll get this right.”
Thus the obsession with minutiae. What constitutes work on the Sabbath? How should this law be interpreted? Who can we trust to understand?
A relationship to and with God based on anxiety.
An anxiety that morphed into arrogance, as anxiety so often does. First, the need to self-protect. Then, the need to self-promote.
We are just like them, these people we read about in the pages of Scripture. Each of us at once the Prodigal Son who runs and the Older Son who stays. The libertine and the Pharisee. Terrified that God is holding out on us and terrified that He’ll strike us dead if we don’t get it exactly right. Doing our best to project the right image, whether in the running toward the sin or in attending church every time the doors are open.
God knows we need to preach the Gospel to ourselves each and every day.
We need to be reminded that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that we express our thanks to and love for God in our obedience. Repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification. Get this out of order and the only result is pain.
It’s a brand new day as you read this, whenever you read this, for any moment is the moment to begin again. Whether you have been living in Jesus’ shadow for years or have been roaming the world far from Him. Whether you think you’ve got your life together or you know you’re a mess. Right now, this second, you can surrender. You can give that thing over to Him and trust that you will be met with great grace and marvelous mercy.
I look at my closet, pleased with how tidy it is. I hear the Spirit whisper in my heart, “Now, what about this, here? Can we tidy this up?”
And I know – the inside, where layers of dirt accumulate far too quickly – needs another good scrubbing.
Blessedly, He knows what He’s doing.