by David Phelps
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” - Mother Teresa
You might recall that I wrote last year that there’s a new house being built across the street from ours (“Person-2-Person,” June, 2003). At this point, the house is nearly finished, although there’s nobody living there yet. My wife, Charlotte, our daughter, Monica, and I don’t understand what the people are thinking. It’s a brick house but they painted the bricks. Since natural brick looks so nice, I’ll never understand why anyone would paint brick, especially on a brand new house. At first, they painted the house gray, which looked a bit odd although it wasn’t too bad. But then we realized the gray was just primer and not the final color. The next thing we knew, they had painted that lovely brick house green; and not just any green but an awful, army-tank-that’s-been-left-out-in-the-sun, grayish olive green. Then they added tan trim, which really made the place look dreadful.
Perhaps the people who painted the brick house wanted to make it look “better” or look like something other than brick. They weren’t willing to “leave well enough alone.” But, as is frequently the case when we try to “improve” something, the result wasn’t nearly as good as they might have hoped. And no matter how many coats of paint they put on it, the house will still be brick.
Jesus compared the teachers of the law and the Pharisees to “. . . whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.” (Matt. 23:27b NIV). They made sure they appeared righteous on the outside where people could see them, but in their hearts, where God could see, they were corrupted by sin. A “whitewashed tomb” is a horrible, ghastly image that makes it very plain what they were like and what Jesus thought of them. They carefully observed all the minutiae of the law, like washing cups and dishes before eating from them, and giving the proper offerings, but they “. . . neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23b NIV).
Unfortunately for us, we’re not all that different from the people Jesus chastised. When we try to “improve” ourselves on our own, we frequently concentrate on changing things on the outside–observing rules and “laws” of our own making–while we ignore “justice, mercy and faithfulness,” the things that really please God. As a result, we become “whitewashed tombs” just like they did. We cannot make ourselves righteous, nor can we cleanse ourselves from the corruption of sin, any more than they could. Only the blood of Christ can do that for us (Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Only God can cleanse us from our sin, and give us a pure heart and a steadfast spirit (Psa. 51). Only then can we present to God “. . . a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart,” (Psa. 51:17b NIV). The author of Proverbs wrote, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Prov. 20:9 NIV). Paul would echo this sentiment in Christian times when he wrote to the church in Rome, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, . . .” (Rom. 3:22b-23 NIV). None of us has a clean, pure heart. We all fall short of God’s perfect glory. But then Paul continued, in the very next verse, “. . . and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:24 NIV).
Pray to God today that you “. . . will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.” (Psa. 51:13b NIV). All have sinned. All are unclean. But all can be cleansed. You can be cleansed. I can be cleansed. Even people who paint brick houses ugly shades of green can be cleansed! God’s grace is there for you, for me, and for all.
“‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
“‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’” (Matt. 23:25-28 NIV).