Back in the days when I was lecturing at a theological college, I was delighted when I managed to persuade one of the foremost experts on pastoral ministry to come and lead a session for our students. It was considered a tremendous coup to have pulled this off, as the man in question was a very big name, and an acknowledged expert in his field, whose books had become standard texts for those training for ordination.
So we all found it difficult to believe what happened when he actually turned up. Because the session he led for us was a complete disaster from beginning to end – not because of what he had to say, which was sensible enough – but because of his behaviour and attitude towards our students. He was arrogant, patronising and rude. What was particularly appalling was that he would respond to (perfectly sensible) questions that he was asked by individuals, by belittling or undermining the questioner, or implying that only an idiot would ask anything so stupid.
By the end of the session that entire group of students were completely as one in their hostility towards him. I had seldom seen them quite so united about anything. And one of their number summed up the situation perfectly, when she said afterwards: ‘That man may know everything that there is to know about the theory of pastoral care – but if ever I were in actual need of pastoral support he is the last person on earth that I would go to.’
But for me, the most astonishing thing of all was that it was abundantly clear that this supposed expert in pastoral care (of all things) clearly had absolutely no idea that there was a problem. He was completely unaware of the immense gulf that existed between what he said, and what he was – or, to put it another way – between what he preached and what he practised.
At around the same time, I attended a conference at which a senior academic, who was notorious – indeed legendary – for his unsurpassed arrogance, delivered a lecture entirely devoted to extolling the virtue of humility. Humility! By the end of the session I was not the only person present who was having to crank up my jaw from the floor. And, once again, it was abundantly clear that the speaker had absolutely no idea that there was a problem. Indeed, he would doubtless have regarded it as being of little importance or interest even it he were. He wasn’t remotely concerned about what anyone else thought, basically because he regarded everyone else present as beneath him. So much for the virtue of humility!
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus has some very sharp things to say about those in authority who presume that they have the right to condemn others for their actions, while failing to see the massive gulf between what they say and who they are; between what is going on on the outside and the inside. In the specific case we are shown it is the scribes and the Pharisees who are his principal target: they are busy condemning the disciples for eating without observing the Jewish regulations about handwashing – without paying any heed whatsoever to their own impurity of heart – and Jesus is perfectly clear which of the two is the more serious offence in the eyes of God.
Because for Jesus, unless there is a fundamental coherence between what we do on the outside, and who we are on the inside, then our pious words and our worthy actions are meaningless and valueless. So, how much worse it is if we are not only in that position but we also presume to set others straight on how they should act – because then, we really are in deep mire. This is a theme that crops up again and again in the teachings of Jesus, as when (for example) he condemns those who complain about the speck in their brother’s eye whilst ignoring the plank in their own.
And a similar theme crops up in our reading from James this morning, where the author says this:
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
And that, of course, was the problem with the two individuals I described in my two opening stories. It would seem that, however exalted their status, and however exalted their publications, neither of them had ever spent sufficient time looking into their own hearts, or at their own lives, to recognise the truth about who they were. When they looked into the metaphorical mirror, all they could see was the surface reflection – which was what they mistakenly imagined others would see, too. But the gulf between what they presented on the outside, and who they were on the inside was so stark, that in fact it undermined their entire credibility. None of those who actually encountered them was fooled for a moment.
I am sure that it is true for most of us that, to some extent or another, there is a gulf between who we are, and who we like to think we are. And it is also likely that people will recognise that gulf, however much we like to conceal it, even from ourselves.
I was reflecting the other day that the people who impress me most in life are not those who are the most clever, or sophisticated, or successful, or pious. Rather, it is the people in whom there is no guile: people whose outside matches their inside; those who are able to say what they mean, and to mean what they say. Because they lack the desire, or the ability, to try and impress others; they have no need to persuade themselves that they are other than they are. And, more often than not, those are also the individuals who, in my experience, exhibit all those positive qualities that are described in our reading from James: they are ‘quick to listen; slow to speak, and slow to anger.’ They are people who somehow manage to be reconciled to themselves, reconciled to others, and reconciled to God. They know that they have nothing to lose, and nothing to prove.
So how interesting it is that the theme of reconciliation also lies at the heart of today’s Collect, our special prayer for the day. For me, the language of reconciliation means rather more than simply the repairing of what was previously broken or damaged, because there is also something profoundly healing about it. Reconciliation brings with it not simply satisfactory closure, but much more importantly, a significant new beginning.
So it is that when our Collect speaks of God in Christ ‘reconciling the world to himself’, it is speaking not merely of an end result, but the launch pad for something completely new: proclaiming the good news of God’s love, so that ‘all who hear it may be drawn to you.’
Lives can be made whole again: our inner lives and our outer lives can be drawn together; our relationships repaired and reinvigorated, and the Kingdom of God brought that little bit closer. But that miraculous process can only truly begin in one place – which is within our individual hearts.
who called your Church to bear witness that you were in Christ
reconciling the world to yourself;
help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross
and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and forever.