But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. — James 1:22
[Jesus] said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly abut you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” — Mark 7:6-8
In her wonderful book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott reminds readers that “reality is unforgivably complex.” Her words ring true, especially this week when thinking about the lessons appointed for the upcoming Sunday. Do you ever long for your life to be simple, your decisions clear-cut, the issues of life laid out tidily in black and white? I think most of us do crave such a direct and navigable path through our days. Yet life is not like that. Life is messy. Life is not tidy and trouble-free. Lamott is right on target with her observation that reality (translate real life) is unforgivably complex.
For all our longing for simplicity and clarity, it is our own broken humanness that contributes to life’s complexity. We think we are on track, yet in reality we are deceiving ourselves. We want to do one thing, yet somehow we end up doing something else entirely different. We want to be and we strive to be good people, but we let judgment and our own insecurities blind and bind us. It is so easy to see the other person’s fault and imperfections while ignoring or glossing over our own sin. Even though we confess each Sunday that “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” it is still so easy to rationalize our own sinful and greedy behavior.
Jesus was well aware of our struggle. In this week’s gospel reading, his disciples are taking some heat for their unorthodox behavior and seeming disregard for purity laws. The good religious folk of the day could not see beyond their tradition and their practice to the glaring imperfections of their own hearts. They were quick to judge others who did not appear to honor God by doing all the right things in the proper and right order.
Looks, however, can be deceiving, and Jesus easily saw beyond their carefully contrived walls of righteousness to the dark recesses of their human hearts. He could see the evilness festering within, the unforgiving complexity of their dark desires swept underneath the calculated coolness of their proper exteriors. The fish may stink from the head, but human sin stinks from the core. Our desires and hopes and dreams are often compromised by the complexity of our human condition and sinful natures.
Paul understood this. Writing in the seventh chapter of Romans (vs. 19) he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The author of the Epistle of James was also well acquainted with the difficulty of living a righteous life. His letter is basically a set of instructions aimed at helping early followers of Christ to live as Godly disciples. The lesson from Deuteronomy and the Psalm also seek to provide instruction in how to follow God through the gift of the law.
Maybe one of the biggest gifts we can offer to our fellow disciples through our teaching and preaching is the confession and honest stories of our own struggles. After all, if we are all in this together and are seeking to walk as children of light and promise, then it makes sense to bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s struggles. I think those of us who are called to serve in leadership positions must be especially careful not to fall into deceptive lie of righteous living and proper tradition as the end-all-be-all markers of faithful discipleship. We must always be on guard for the eruption of sin and deceit in our own hearts of darkness, and ever willing to expose evil and sin as the insidious and deceitful lies and false walls that they are. We want to live the life of faith not fall into living the lie of false righteousness and deceitful practices of judgment and superiority.
Yes, life is “unforgivably complex,” and only Jesus can help us to make sense of it, both in Word and Sacrament and in daily deed and faithful discipleship. How can you help others to live the life of faith and avoid the lie that leads to spiritual deadness? How can you avoid self-deception and false pride that comes from curving in on yourself instead of looking out for others?