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When I was in seminary, I spent two summers working on the Grounds Crew. And over the summer months, students like me who worked with the grounds crew cut grass, picked up trash and helped do a lot of the regular maintenance. But we also were especially hired to help do some of the things that couldn’t be done when school was in session and students were living in the student housing.
And one of the biggest jobs we had was to paint the inside of virtually every dorm room and student apartment. In fact, we probably spent most of the summer painting. And it was through that experience that I also learned a lot about the preparation that you’re supposed to do whenever you paint a room.
For instance, you’re supposed to clean all the dirt off the surface you’re going to paint. You’re supposed to fill all the nail holes in the walls. And you’re supposed to repair and replace wood trim that looks like it’s deteriorating.
But usually, we didn’t have time to do all that stuff! So we painted over a lot of things that we really shouldn’t have painted over. We filled holes with paint. We painted over dirt. And honestly, we used so much paint to glue stuff together, that we sometimes wondered whether the paint was the only thing holding some of that student housing together… (a belief that was reinforced by what happened about 10 years later when some of those buildings were torn down…)
However, by the time the summer was over, we had painted everything we were supposed to paint. And it looked good! It held together for another year. And honestly, years of painters before us had done the same thing. And so painting over stuff didn’t seem like that much of a big deal.
Paint jobs can cover a lot of stuff, at least for a while. But they don’t address underlying problems. And that’s the way things work in a lot of areas of life.
In fact, that’s really what Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel reading. God has called people to lives of faithfulness and righteousness. But people have become really good at the façade of living faithfully and righteously, instead of actually doing those things.
They’ve become even better at paint jobs than the grounds crew! Sometimes, the “paint job” is done by:
- Comparing themselves to other people – well yes, I may not be perfect, but look at that guy over there! That’s what seems to be behind the hand washing stuff the Pharisees complain about … (and in some of the verses that get left out of today’s reading, Jesus calls the Pharisees out for much worse rules that they break; but often, it’s by focusing on somebody’s else’s minor infraction, that you can paint over whatever you’d rather not see or deal with in your own life…)
- Righteous indignation – every day, I see posts by friends on Facebook who have decided to “break their silence” and “call out” all of the people they feel are doing horrible, terrible things! And now that they’ve vented their spleen on social media, they’ve done their part! But simply venting anger at other people’s misdeeds doesn’t actually change anything. James reminds us, in today’s second reading, that “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” And it’s true. But sometimes, it does a pretty good job of painting over the problem so that we feel better about it…
- Words and actions that make us look good – PR is nothing new. People, not just the Pharisees, often dressed up, said the right words and did things that people noticed in order to look like they were being good and faithful. But sometimes, it’s just a paint job. And the paint jobs we often do aren’t done so much to impress others, as they’re done to convince ourselves that things are pretty much fine the way they are. After all, I can do a pretty convincing job of making myself feel like things are just fine in my life, even when they’re not. Maybe this is true for you, too…
Jesus’ words today were intended, not just for the Pharisees or the first disciples, but for all of us. And while these words at first seem to be about the washing of hands and other arcane points of religious law, really what Jesus is talking about are the paint jobs that people so often get invested in.
And what Jesus is really calling us to do is to:
- Recognize the paint jobs that we so often substitute for faithfulness and righteousness, even when we’re not aware of it. It’s often the case that the things that bring us the most praise and approval from other people are the things that make us look good; and sometimes, they are good things (like washing your hands before dinner). But sometimes, they’re also the things that make us stop asking whether we’re really doing what God is calling us to do or becoming the people God wants us to be, because after all, our snarky tweets or posts have brought us so many likes and shares…!
- Trust in God’s forgiveness, instead of our own sense of righteousness – often, at the heart of comparing ourselves to others – or even our pious indignation at the evil of other people – is the desire to not take our own need for forgiveness and change seriously. After all, shouldn’t I really care about a big problem someplace else rather than a little problem within me. But trusting in God’s forgiveness actually allows me to admit what’s wrong with me, even if it seems small. Like actually taking a moment to spackle a nail hole, sometimes it takes just a moment to admit that the way you’ve been doing something isn’t maybe the best way, and to make an adjustment to how you were going to do something. That’s a simple way of living into and accepting God’s forgiveness. And that’s often the beginning of learning to live in a new way…
- Focus on the things that matter – actually, Jesus never said that washing hands was wrong, or even unimportant. But he taught his disciples to focus on the big things that mattered. And often, it’s easy to get caught up in the the little things can be done quickly and easily, and to lose sight of the bigger things that will really make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others in the world around us. Painting is quick and looks good. But sometimes, you gotta put down the brush and decide that there are bigger things to deal with first…
Today, whenever I have to paint something at my house, I still sometimes get tempted to just slap the paint on. But in those moments, I try to stop myself and remember to do the stuff that matters first – to clean up, fill the holes and make the repairs. That’s what’s really going to make a long term difference.
And Jesus is calling us to be invested for the long term as well. And so Jesus reminds us also, whenever we get tempted to do a “paint job” in our lives, to recognize those moments when paint is not enough. Jesus promises us the forgiveness and help to make the repairs and adjustments that need to be made. And Jesus calls us always to focus on the important things that help us to grow into the kind of people God wants us to be.