This passage, although all on the theme of hypocrisy, falls into two parts. Firstly we see Jesus, criticising the Pharisees. It is their love of outward appearance and man-made religion which riles him, coupled with their underlying neglect of justice and love of God. Worse than this, he points out that through their actions they are hindering others in their knowledge and love of God (v.52). Secondly, we see Jesus emphasising God’s love for us through his intimate knowledge of us. This cuts through outer appearances to our inner core and numbers each hair on our heads. He knows our true desires and motivations.
In a society where so much of our opinion can be formed through the media, both social media and more established outlets, we are at great danger of following outward appearances. Far-right groups deliberately post seemingly innocuous messages to entice people to share and follow them, and people are enticed in by a veneer of respectability.
I found myself contrasting this with two highly-flawed but great men of God who at times suffered an “image problem.” Firstly, King David. He made many mistakes throughout his life and reign, one of the most well-known being when he committed adultery with Bathsheba (or possibly raped her), hatched a plan to cover it up, then murdered her husband when the plan went wrong. Psalm 51 is his genuine heart-wrenching confession of “oh Lord, I’ve messed up big time”. God knew it was genuine and forgave him.
Secondly, I was reminded of the singer Johnny Cash. A personal friend of Billy Graham he nevertheless spent a large part of his life battling drug and alcohol dependency, brushes with the law and the odd bit of womanising. However, he acknowledged that he was a deeply broken man and carried a strong Christian faith throughout. He died just weeks after completing the one album which he said he wanted to make all his career, of just him and his guitar, singing gospel songs.
Finally, when thinking of outward appearances and image, we can do no better than to think of Jesus. He was berated for being a drunkard, an itinerant and a party-goer! Instead of hanging around with the educated priests and rulers he chose to spend his time with a bunch of fishermen.
So where do we sit? Probably somewhere between the two. Let’s just ask the Lord to keep our hearts in check, not to worry too much about outward appearances, but to truly and earnestly seek after Him.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.