Keeping Up Appearances

“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).

It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!

This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.

Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.

It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.

When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!

How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?

There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!

Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?

In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.

While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Keeping Up Appearances

Reproof

Whoso loveth correction loveth knowledge; but he that hateth reproof is brutish (Proverbs 12:1).

A wise son heareth his father’s instruction; but a scoffer heareth not rebuke (Proverbs 13:1).

A fool despiseth his father’s correction; but he that regardeth reproof getteth prudence (Proverbs 15:5).

One of the things that unites all mankind is our distaste at being wrong and our extreme discomfort when our words or behavior are challenged or rebuked. We do not like such circumstances. We do not look forward to them. We do not feel good after they happen, generally.

Much of this is due to our internal pride and self-image. If we are proven to be wrong, or if our conduct is unseemly, then we feel lowered in the eyes of others. If nothing else, we feel internally humiliated. Humiliation is hard enough when we try to be humble ourselves (cf. 1 Peter 5:6)– it is that much more difficult when it is being imposed on us. Our pride is wounded, and our fight or flight impulse is often aroused. For some reason the idea that we are debased in the eyes of others because of our words or our conduct do not seem to bother us as much as the feelings that come when we are called out regarding them. Yet the sting remains.

The type of person we are, however, is proven not by whether or not we will be rebuked or chastened, but in how we respond to such rebuke and chastisement. None of us are perfect; there are all times when we find ourselves in the wrong (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). All of us deserve rebuke and reproof at times.

The easy thing to do is to get defensive and refuse to listen to the criticism. Some may get violent; others might unleash a torrent of criticism themselves. We can all easily try to find reasons why we should not listen to the rebuke so that we may find a way to preserve our pride. We may attempt to make the one rebuking look like a hypocrite, or we might wrap our words in sanctimony and denounce them for “judging” us or for imposing their standards upon us. We might construct elaborate arguments to justify a losing cause, no matter how weak or easily dismissed those arguments might be. What is important in the end is to remain justified and right.

It is also easy to just ignore the criticism and pretend it does not mean anything. Some people create very elaborate worldviews that seek to invalidate various forms of criticism. After all, if you can figure out a way to render the basis for the rebuke irrelevant, then the rebuke itself will be irrelevant, right?

Yet, as Solomon (among others) has made clear, this response is not the response of wisdom. It is the way of folly– the way of the fool, the scoffer, and the brute. In fact, such a person is double the fool– he has been carried away in some wrong thinking or action, and when others make effort to correct him, he rejects that correction and continues in the error. In such circumstances it is easy for people to begin writing off the fool– why bother rebuking someone who will not hear and will not change? It is tragic to think about how many people have fallen into such misery and distress, presently and for the future, because they rejected reproof and would rather be wrong and proud than to live according to wisdom and to live.

The wise person who loves knowledge and is prudent will accept criticism. No one ever promises that accepting criticism will be easy– it is not. Yet we must appreciate it when people care enough, for whatever reason, to show us the proper way.

Some may fear that they will look weak or pathetic if they accept criticism. While that may be the response of some, such a response is itself a form of folly. Instead, most people have a higher respect for those who are willing to be chastened and who will accept reproof and rebuke. It is the way of humility and the way of wisdom, and it deserves to be honored. Better to swallow pride, accept that we are wrong, and perhaps look like a fool for a moment than to stubbornly insist on our own way and be the fool perpetually!

As in all things, chastisement requires discretion. Not all reproof and rebuke will necessarily be legitimate, but it is better to be open to possibilities of error than to delude oneself into thinking that he or she is always right. Those who would rebuke others must also make sure that their motivations are pure and that they are conducting themselves in the best way so as to obtain the desired repentance, always watching for themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5, 18:15-18, Galatians 6:1).

Being wrong is never fun, and correcting error should not be relished. Yet it is necessary for our physical and spiritual health to be rebuked and reproved when we are wrong. Let us be wise and accept reproof and live!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Reproof