2nd September, 2018
As you can probably tell from my phenomenal physique I’ve never been any kind of sportsperson. When I was at a typically sports mad all boys high school my salvation came in the form of music and drama. I never excelled at either of those things, but they certainly provided me with friends and a creative outlet that made what was often an unhappy school experience bearable.
One particular ray of sunshine is my schooling experience came in the form of my sixth form drama teacher. In a school that was big on discipline and conformity, my drama teacher was one of the few members of staff to swim against the tide. For example if any student in the class attempted to shock her in any way, she would respond with a story that was completely mind-blowing in comparison. Her very colourful life meant that she easily had the measure of a group of 16 year old boys.
As part of this drama class we would regularly head out on week nights to see different shows being put on around Wellington. That was certainly an education and opened our eyes to a much bigger world. This brings me to the particular story I wish to share.
One night we were at a show at the Wellington fringe festival. Our teacher had selected the show because she had seen the featured actor do a one-woman show the year before that was very good. The show we went to see however, was not the masterpiece that our teacher had previously seen. The actor took to the stage and began to read what could only be described as some fairly self indulgent poetry.
About 10 minutes into this, my teacher suddenly spoke up. She directly addressed the woman on stage and asked, “I’m sorry, but is this what you do?” “Ahhh it’s what I’m doing tonight,” came the reply. Now I can tell from the shudder I just felt move through the room, that this feels somewhat uncomfortable to many of you. Imagine being a fairly timid 16 year old watching this play out right in front of you. To make things worse, my teacher then stood up and walked out of the theatre leaving the entire class behind.
The actor went back to reading her poetry, while my classmates and I sat there wondering what on earth we should do. Another 10 minutes went by, at which stage a classmate plucked up enough courage to do something. He stood up and after thanking the actor for her lovely poetry told her he didn’t mean to be rude but a number of us had a train to catch and had to leave. He then walked out of the theatre, and not a single other person moved. The level of discomfort only increased. The quality of the poetry only declined.
Finally the show came to an end. We shuffled out into the lobby where our teacher was waiting. She then explained that she had sat through enough bad theatre for one lifetime and that none of us should have felt compelled to stay. Of course that idea didn’t fit with the rules of politeness that had been drilled into us over the years. None of us wanted be rude to the performer. But on the other hand, what we had paid to see was not what was advertised and was not actually very good.
Regardless of the discomfort of the situation, our teacher made us think more deeply about the choices we make. Up until that point I would never have considered walking out of anything, be it a bad musical or theatre performance or simply a bad movie. Our teacher gave us an appreciation of the fact that we don’t always have to go along with politeness for politeness sake. Now you may not approve of what she did, I certainly think she could have left in a way that was less dramatic. Still, at the end of the day, she didn’t have to listen to two hours of terrible poetry, whereas I can remember some of it word for word 25 years later.
There are lots of unwritten rules that dictate what is permissible in polite society. Some are simply expressions of politeness such as holding a door for someone else, or saying please and thank you. Others are a little more stringent, such as not interrupting a performance. For the most part these unwritten rules serve us quite well. They are the oil that allow the machinery of social order to keep running smoothly. The problem comes when we simply perform the behaviour and forget the deeper reasons that established the behaviour in the first place.
When Jesus found himself debating with the Pharisee’s about the merits of washing before eating, Jesus took the opportunity to move beyond polite convention into a deeper discussion of what was being expressed through actions such as ritual washing. As we know at this point in history, washing your hands before a meal is simply basic hygiene. But in the first century the ritual of washing had come to symbolise spiritual purity. We know the expression; cleanliness is next to godliness. Essentially the argument being made by the Pharisees was that by not washing appropriately the disciples were showing themselves to be unholy, unrighteous people.
We have similar biases today. For example we can conclude that because a person swears excessively that they are unintelligent. The point here is that behaviour or simply following accepted norms doesn’t actually tell us about what a person is really like. A person who swears a lot may actually be a highly intelligent and caring individual, but one who simply makes a bad first impression. We’re all guilty of that from time to time.
Given the criticism of his disciples Jesus responds with questions to the accusers. What Jesus seems to take exception to is the empty piety of the Pharisees. What he suggests is that while they may be full of all the airs and graces, while they make a grand show of doing the right thing at the right time, by being seen to have washed themselves at every opportunity, their motivation is self-serving. For Jesus showing genuine love for others was far more important than appearing to be a good person. It was the motivation for behaviour that was more important than the behaviour itself.
There is a phrase that gets thrown around these days which is often taken for granted. The phrase is, perception is reality. Now that might be true from a marketing perspective, but actually I would argue that reality is reality. This is very much the argument that Jesus is making. While the Pharisees are working hard at curating how they are perceived by others, they are ultimately misrepresenting themselves. The disciples however are living God’s commandment to love their neighbors, regardless of how that may look to others.
We do live in a world that encourages us to maintain the right public image. Certainly social media encourages us to present what we think of as the best version of ourselves to the world. The challenge is to focus less on what others perceive us to be, and instead to focus on authentic loving relationships.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant