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 the bones of the dead 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.
-Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)
It wasn’t usually like that, you understand. But on this particular Saturday — ugh. The strong smell of mildew. Mold, maybe. Or something. We’d had a little water seep in after strong rains and wet the carpet and pad in one room. It had never been this bad, though. Something was clearly going on. But the carpet didn’t seem to be wet. Well, maybe it had been, and the mold had started growing.
Not knowing what else to do, I decided to pull out the carpet. It was getting kind of old anyway, and if it was as moldy as it smelled then it certainly didn’t need to be in the house. I went down and started cutting and pulling. After an hour or so of work, the carpet and pad in what we still call “the playroom” (despite the fact that the one who mostly played in it is now a junior in college) was rolled up in three or four sections, ready to be dragged to the curb.
Funny thing, though — I never found the mold I expected to find.
Well, maybe it was in the pad or the carpet or something. Maybe when I dragged it out to the curb, the smell would be gone. So I opened the door to the outside, the door that leads to steps that go up to ground level. The door that gets used once or twice a week. I opened the door, and it hit me.
When I say it hit me, I mean I realized that what we were smelling wasn’t mold at all.
But I also mean that the smell hit me. I mean, really hit me. Like I imagine an armored truck would hit me.
The smell of a squirrel that had expired, oh, I’m guessing 5 or 6 days before and had spent the better part of a week…contributing to the ecosystem, let’s just say. On the steps just outside my basement door.
The good news is that once my late little friend was hosed off my steps and his remains (mostly tail) buried in my backyard — deeply, and with all the honors deserved by a squirrel of his stature — the smell was out of my basement in no time at all.
What if I had never opened that door, though?
Go along with me here. What if I just replaced the carpet? Would the smell be gone? No, even with beautiful new carpet, or expensive tile, or whatever, the basement would still stink. It would look better, newer, but you still wouldn’t want to spend any time there.
So what if I placed some air fresheners around? Well, that might help a little. It might mask the odor. Make it smell like death and lilacs (which would not be a great smell, but is a wonderful band name…). The smell would still be there. It still wouldn’t be a place you’d want to spend much time.
So, OK: if new carpet and air fresheners wouldn’t do it, how about new paint? New paint always freshens a place up — no cracks, no stained trim, no scuff marks. Surely a couple gallons of Sherwin-Williams would do it, right?
You know it wouldn’t, of course. Neither would nice new furniture, better window treatments, a state of the art home theater, or a top-notch security system. It wouldn’t matter if you made the room into a library, game room, office, or bedroom. You could do a lot of work, much more than I did, and still get nowhere, for one painfully obvious reason; none of that would get anywhere near the source of the problem.
Of course, no one would be dumb enough to do that, would they?
Well, hold on.
I’ve seen a lot of people change churches over and over, jump from place to place, trying to find something that they can’t even define: a feeling, a sense of belonging, a purpose. They chase that…whatever it is…from church to church, when maybe all along the problem has more to do with their expectations. But they’re never going to find it if they never move from a preoccupation with receiving to a determination to give.
I’ve seen people identify their marriage problems as some variation of “my spouse doesn’t make me happy.” So they set about trying to “fix” their husband or wife, which generally has the effect of making things worse. Or go find a new one that’s closer to their ideal. Thing is, while their attention is on fixing or replacing their spouse, they don’t consider that the smell might be coming from something corrupt in their own heart.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen self-righteous people who know every dark place on the internet demean “the gays.” You’ve seen angry, bitter people attack immigrants as the source of all their problems, when their problems have nothing to do with that family down the street from Mexico, or Yemen, or Poland. You know people who laugh that their only drinking problem is that they can’t get enough beer, and you know that there’s something full of decay down deep inside them that they haven’t seen or think they can ignore.
Maybe, just maybe, you yourself have been letting something rotten stay in the darkness of your heart of hearts for a long time now: anger, jealousy, hurt, grief, lust, selfishness, pride, greed. You’ve tried fixing the people around you. You’ve tried engineering your life to look just like you want it to. You’ve whitewashed your tombs. You’ve obsessively scrubbed the outside of your best china. But the stink is still there.
“First clean the inside,” Jesus says. That doesn’t work with china — please clean the outside of your dishes too — but it works with people because what’s inside us tends to find its way outside until it poisons the air all around us.
Of course, if we could clean up our own insides we wouldn’t be in this mess. Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is saying. The problem he’s pointing at is our inability to even acknowledge that there might be something in our hearts, something that needs cleaning out down in the tangle of needs, wants, values, perspectives, and attitudes that make us who we are. We’d rather just leave the door shut. We need Jesus to do the cleaning, to write God’s laws on our hearts, in the words of Jeremiah. But we have to be willing to “draw near to God with a sincere heart” so that can happen.
There’s nothing we need to hide. Nothing we have to prove. Open that door. It might be kind of gross back there. It might take some work to clean it up. But it’s only when we’re willing to acknowledge where the real problem is that God will start to clean it up.
Trust me: you don’t want to leave it there. It’ll just smell worse.