Beware of Appearances

By Cathy H. George

Jesus doesn’t confine his teachings about money and possessions to stewardship season. In today’s Gospel he takes a seat next to the offertory plate in the temple and uses the seat for a teaching moment. His subject is the human proclivity to judge others based upon appearances.

The bulk of Mark’s gospel are records of Jesus’ healing miracles, and his authoritative teachings on Jewish law. The precursor to today’s lesson tells of the chief priests, scribes and elders —who in our world are the chancellor, the bishops, clergy, and clerk and wardens of the vestry, people who know the rules and are invested in the faith community. These leaders want to know by what authority Jesus heals, teaches and casts out demons. We are told that these leaders are Herodians, followers of King Herod, concerned about the impact of Jesus’ growing popularity and increasing authority. They come forward seeking to trap Jesus in a mistake, or offense. They test him with difficult questions.

Should the faithful pay taxes? He answers with his well-known off-handed comment, “bring me a denarius.” Whose picture is on it, Jesus asks, and when they answer he speaks with simple clarity: “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.”

The more complicated question regards marriage, remarriage, and the afterlife. Seven brothers. All of whom die. Each one marries the same women widowed by their brother’s death. Their question for Jesus is which brother is she married to in the resurrection. Jesus cocks an eye, and dips his head in disbelief, while muttering to himself, am I really being asked this question? “In the resurrection people are neither married nor given in marriage,” Jesus says, and concludes with his main point: “God is a God of the living, not of the dead.” His way of suggesting they might talk about something that actually matters.

He sails through all the cross-examination, a question about family lineage, the most important commandment. Listeners are stunned and silenced by the depth and insightfulness of his responses and “no one dared ask him any more questions.” Jesus does well in the debate set out to snare him. Now it is his turn. Seeing that a crowd has gathered, Jesus chooses a topic that is very important to him, one he returns to time and again. Beware of being a phony — especially religious leaders. In Mark, Jesus says: “Beware of the Scribes who like to walk around in long robes (I’m only seeing a few of us guilty of wearing long robes here this morning), to be greeted in the marketplace, have the best seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at the banquets.”

In your private office at work you foreclose on widow’s houses, but when everyone is watching you lead prayers in public for the sake of appearance. And you do not connect the two. Beware. In public we are the model churchgoing family admired by others; in private, when no one is looking, we ridicule, mistreat, and abuse your children. And we don’t connect the two. Beware.

In the hands of a playwright this teaching of Jesus would come alive. Imagine the strutting, the pomp, the sanctimonious prayers said in public, with volume so that others can hear. Words not spoken to God, but for the benefit of all those listening and watching. Imagine the pretentious costumes! Maybe the confirmation class will take this on!

Beware of judging by how things appear. To demonstrate his point, Jesus walks over and sits down next to the collection plate, the treasury. “Many rich people put in large sums.”  (I wish Jesus made it clear that rich people giving large sums is not a bad thing. But that is not his point here. ) Jesus draws the rulers’ attention to a poor widow, who put in two copper coins, which were worth nearly nothing. He tells them that she has put in more than all of them. To their ears that is blatantly untrue. They count the cash and record the checks. They gave large sums; she gives next to nothing. Jesus is making another point: Do not judge by appearances.

The poor widow’s clothes were likely used and worn out. She would never be given a seat of honor or any recognition in the marketplace. No thank you card from the pledge drive. No recognition on pledge Sunday. Jesus points to the fact that God sees in secret, God knows what is hidden — even in our private bank accounts and stock portfolios. The collect that opens our service reminds us of this each time we come together, that we come to a God before whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”

The custodian of the parish I once served was also a pledging member and active participant in the church community. She had a second job driving the public school bus on the morning run every weekday. When it came time for our pledge drive, she handed in her pledge card to me. Knowing what her salary was, I saw that she gave at a level of great generosity. At a vestry meeting there was a discussion on proportional giving.

Might we consider this as a way of sharing a parish expectation of what level we might all give at? We were not ready to offer a 10 percent tithe, but I suggested that we discuss the possibility of inviting people to give between 3-5 percent of their annual income. “But that actually isn’t fair,” a vestryman said. “Someone who makes $30,000 a year does not feel the pain of giving like someone who makes $300,000.”

Heads nodded in agreement. Then the room grew quiet. I said, yes, the pain of giving is the same, as we all digested the fact that we judged someone with less money unfairly. It was far less money, but proportionally, it did ask the same kind of generosity across the landscape of income levels. The unfair, unjust judgement cast upon those who make less than others sat before us at that meeting like a mirror held up by God.

Do not judge. It is one of the hardest of Jesus’ sayings. Do not judge others by appearances. God sees through to the heart, through to the truth in each of us.

Whether it is a question of the collection plate, taxes, family lineage or religious pomp. May we be given strength from the witness of the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus to beware of judging by appearances.

The Dr. Cathy H. George is chaplain at Epiphany School, Dorchester, Mass.

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