"Keeping Up Appearances"
August 16, 2023, 6:00 AM

[Jesus said], “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles… What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile. Matthew 15:18-20

“Keeping up appearances” is more than a British comedy on PBS. It is also one of the most difficult tasks for Christians to overcome. We are taught from our youth to be this way or that way, fold hands in church, wear certain clothes for one occasion and others for another, eat specific foods on different holidays, avoid looking like a glutton, and always appear polite to guests (even, if we dislike them).

St. Francis was caught up in superficial appearances early in his life. He was, “so-to-speak,” a party boy. St. Francis ran with a rapacious crowd, spent money frivolously on everything that would make him look good, and had no reason to be polite to those who did not support his lifestyle. He lived through superficial appearances until the war ended and severe illness washed away his façade.

We all attempt to keep up appearances. The desire to look good in front of others is universal. Our parents or caretakers teach us well. Looking good is also helpful early in life especially in our work, careers, or in the church. Appearances help us “fit in.” Richard Rohr would call this fitting in the beginning of our false self.

As we get older, we hopefully realize that there is more to “fitting in.” We begin to recognize that we are more than the group we imitate. If we are bold enough and trust in God’s grace, we cast off the false sense of self with our incessant need to appear good, and we embrace our True Self – the self that God made us to be.

When the Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating, Jesus makes clear that looking good before others (as the Pharisees did) is not an issue for those who seek God. Instead, responding from motivations in the heart is what matters. If the heart is filled with love, words from the mouth follow synchronously. Likewise, if love is missing, ensuing words reflect the defilement of a person. As the axiom goes, “What’s in the well comes up in the bucket.”

For the Pharisees who thought themselves to be righteous, Jesus points out that the pride in their handwashing stood in contradiction to their sordid hearts which allowed for all types of malice. The Pharisees had not moved beyond their focus on “keeping up appearances.” Their false self was exposed by their sole focus on the keeping of cultural rituals.

In contrast, the True Self is secure in the identity of being a child of God and not anything else. Our True Self does not respond to others with judgment. The True Self is so focused on following God’s path of love that there is no time to sit and judge others.

Finding our True Self is a journey. Our True Self is often covered up during our lifetime by our lack of affirmation, and by being ignored, criticized, and misunderstood. We begin to doubt that we have infinite, intrinsic value early on in life. Our goodness is covered with a false sense of self in an attempt to protect ourselves as we encounter a challenging world.

Our false sense of self may be akin to the formerly clay statue of Buddha in Bangkok, Thailand. For over 600 years, the statue was thought to be made solely of clay. While being moved one day in the 1950s, it cracked. The crack revealed a glimmer of gold deep within the fissure. When the clay was removed from around the entire statue, there remained a solid gold Buddha. The clay had been placed centuries prior over the gold Buddha in order to protect it from being stolen during a war with the enemy. It stayed safe and intact under the clay, but had never shown its true glory.

In every creature of God, there is a True Self, much like the intact golden Buddha. Even the Pharisees to whom Jesus addressed his comments had a True Self within. It was only by confronting their false sense of self that Jesus could attempt to chip away at their hardened, claylike attitude that kept them from seeing the love that their True Self could manifest.

Take notice this week when you are using your false self to interact with others. Also, note the times that your True Self shines through the emerging cracks in your life. And, ask God to chip away the claylike attitudes that still keep you from becoming your True Self all of the time.

Prayers and Blessings,

Fr. John