For some people, appearances are more important than reality. About twenty years ago, for instance, the nation of Italy passed a law requiring all motorists to wear seat belts when driving their cars. Italy is known for having many independent, aggressive drivers, so the new law didn’t go over very well; however, it did provide an opportunity for one clever entrepreneur to make a lot of money. A psychiatrist in Naples invented what he called a “security shirt.” It consisted of a white T-shirt with a diagonal black line in the same size and position as a seat-belt strap, designed to deceive police into believing that the driver was buckled up (Homily Notebook, “Appearance”). The only security this shirt offered, of course, was from a traffic ticket—not from an actual car accident.
It’s foolish to be more concerned about appearing to be safe than actually being safe; however, it’s downright sinful when people use appearances to escape responsibility when they’ve harmed others. A man coming out of a store discovered that the side of his car had been badly dented. There was a note on the windshield, presumably from the person responsible for the accident. The note read, “The people standing in the parking lot who’ve witnessed my little accident involving your car think I’m leaving you my name and phone number, but they’re wrong.” That’s all the note said (Sunday Sermon Treasury, Vol. II, #815). The driver who hit the parked car wasn’t actually concerned with doing the right thing, but merely with appearing to do so. His or her actions were useless and of no value to anyone. Jesus today tells us that our worship of God must not be like this. Pretending to do the right thing might fool police officers enforcing a seat-belt law or observers of an accident in a store parking lot, but it cannot fool God. He sees—and judges—based on what’s in our hearts. For this reason, true worship of God must always involve more than just outward appearances.
Our Lord used a parable (Mt 21:28-32) to show that God will accept worship from anyone—as long as it’s sincere. Two sons were told by their father to go and work in the vineyard. The first son refused. In ancient cultures this sort of disobedience and disrespect was a very grave offense—but the son made up for it when he repented and did as his father asked. The second son respectfully agreed, but then completely ignored his father’s wishes; his show of humble obedience was nothing more than a worthless fraud. Jesus presented this story as a challenge to the religious leaders, many of whom were like the second son: supposedly obedient to God, but actually ignoring His will in favor of their own. Their outward show of respect was not only dishonest, but useless and offensive in God’s eyes. Jesus deliberately contrasted this attitude with the response of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other public sinners. Their immoral lifestyle was a rejection of God and His commands. However, the preaching of John the Baptist—and of Jesus Himself—caused many of them to have a change of heart, like the first son in Our Lord’s parable. They began living according to faith, and God was willing to overlook and even forgive their earlier sins because of their new-found obedience. This is the same message the prophet Ezekiel (18:25-28) proclaims: no matter what our sins may have been in the past, God always welcomes our genuine repentance and our desire to make a new beginning.
A 19th century theologian and philosopher named Sören Kierkegaard once said, “There is no such thing as being a Christian; there is only becoming a Christian.” In other words, making our faith real and authentic is an ongoing process. In his Letter to the Philippians (2:1-11), St. Paul gives us some of the implications of this truth. We must, he says, be “of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart. . . .” This means opening ourselves to the presence of Jesus, trying to be His followers and seeking to live according to His commands. Paul says we must never act out of selfishness or conceit, nor must we get caught up in the false values of society, in which people try to build themselves up at the expense of others, and in which so many are concerned only with getting ahead and getting even. Rather, St. Paul urges us to look out for each other, offering assistance, encouragement, and support. This is what Jesus did; this is how Our Lord showed His genuine love for all. If we try to follow this example, we prove that our love for Christ is real, and not just a show.
On the French Riviera, it’s a very important status symbol that each apartment have a balcony overlooking the water—so much so that most of the apartments which don’t have actual balconies instead have them painted on the walls, and these paintings usually look very lifelike or realistic from a distance. In fact, people will even include such details as wet laundry hanging from a clothesline to make the illusion more believable (Michael H. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 201). Window-dressing isn’t sinful when it involves painting the outside of an apartment building, but it’s a grave mistake when it comes to our own souls. Pretending to be something we’re not keeps us from becoming the persons we’re called to be. Even worse, self-righteousness can easily become like a form of moral quicksand, in which we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into hypocrisy, a judgmental spirit, and an increasing inability to recognize, admit, and repent of our sins. If we remain trapped in such a spiritual quagmire, we will end up being lost forever. Only Jesus can pull us free, and He stretches out His hand to us—but we cannot grasp it unless we for our part reach out to Him in honesty and humility.
In God’s eyes, words never take the place of deeds; appearances can never substitute for reality; empty lies can never replace truth. There are perhaps many people who call themselves Christians but who don’t really try to live as Christ did; this empty approach to religion counts for nothing. Faith is an opportunity. Rather than wasting it, we’re supposed to respond sincerely to God’s call, for in this way our obedience and worship of Him becomes life-giving and real.