Pentecost 14 B James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? Ah the vanity of mirrors and gazing too long at our own reflections! The ancient Greeks told a cautionary story about the lure of our own reflection in the story of Narcissus. Narcissus went to a pool of water to get a drink, leaned over and, for the very first time, caught sight of his own reflection. He fell so in love with that reflection, so in love with himself, that he would never or perhaps could never love anyone or anything else again. He lived out all of his days obsessed with himself. Narcissus is much like our current word for someone obsessed with themselves: narcissist.
Mirrors play interesting and mysterious roles in lots of stories and, most often, they are symbolic of what we wish to see, wish not to see or cannot yet see. In the first of the Harry Potter books, the main characters in the story find a huge mirror. It is very attractive to Harry because whenever someone looks into it, they see whatever it is that will make them perfectly happy. What a wonderful trick that is! Harry, who is an orphan and longs desperately to know his parents, sees in the mirror an image of his mother and father standing beside him. He begins to spend more and more time sitting in front of the mirror gazing at this image. Eventually, the school’s headmaster hides the mirror because it is dangerous. Over time, a great number of people have become so obsessed with it, their lives waste away while spending all their time looking into it instead of living their lives.
But my personal favorite story about mirrors is the one from which I quoted the famous line: Snow White. The queen only cared about how beautiful she was. Her only real care was being the most beautiful in the land. She would ask her magic mirror—Mirror mirror on the wall,
who is the fairest of them all? And the reply was—you are, my queen. Did she ever really look at herself? Did she ever see what she was REALLY like? All she saw was the affirmation that she was beautiful. She heard what she wanted to hear. And that is all she wanted.
That is, of course, until her stepdaughter grew up. THEN when the queen asked the magic mirror—Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? The response was—You are indeed a fair queen, ‘tis true. But Snow White is truly fairer than you. Utterly obsessed by her own beauty, the queen cannot let this remain as it is. She must be the fairest. Instead of taking a long look at herself—really looking at herself—she goes down a twisted and sordid path leading to the attempted murder of her step daughter by poisoning and, eventually, to her own demise.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
In our second lesson for the day, we have something else about mirrors as well. This whole letter to the early Christian church written by James is geared toward helping new Christians understand how to live their lives. He is writing to help them see what their lives should look like now that they are members of this group of people who believe in Jesus. Throughout the letter, he talks about the choices we make and how we are to live.
In the section for today, the author writes: Be Doers, not just Hearers. Reminds me of my mother saying to me when I was a kid—I know you HEARD me but were you LISTENING! Hearers of the word aren’t necessarily listeners. But listeners are doers. So, James says, there are people who look into mirrors and forget what they look like or never really see themselves in the first place. They see what they want to see. But they don’t truly see. Like the queen in Snow White, the Pharisees in our Gospel text look into the mirror, or in other words look into or hear the law, and they only see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. They see themselves as holy and righteous.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most righteous of all?
But Jesus points out in our Gospel lesson the foolishness of their accusing some of his disciples of eating with defiled hands. First, to our ears, this exchange sounds like it is about washing your hands before you eat in the way we do today, but it’s not. This is about a kind of ritual washing, ritual cleaning. It’s more about piety and holiness than it is about hygiene. So, the Pharisees think themselves to be quite righteous, holier than thou in a quite literal way, because they perform all the necessary rituals and Jesus’ disciples don’t.
Now, let’s think about the logic of this. The disciples are following, eating and drinking with, living their lives along side Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God—God Himself, the one whose very touch is so holy and powerful that it heals people instantly, the one who is himself so righteous that all he has to do is say ‘your sins are forgiven’ and they ARE. The Pharisees have washed their hands according to the proscribed ritual. Who is the cleaner ones? Who is the most righteous? They rely upon performing a ritual and following the law—their own actions—to be righteous. The disciples rely upon Jesus and his righteousness.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the holiest one of all?
Martin Luther uses a mirror as a way of thinking about the law, too. Luther believed that there were three uses for the law. The first is called civil. The law as a way to keep people from killing each other and providing a safe world for us to all live together peacefully. This applies to all of humanity and this kind of law is found in virtually all human societies in one form or another. The second is as a mirror. The law is a mirror that we hold up to ourselves to see how we really are. We have to actually look in it, though. Luther’s objective was not so we would look in the mirror of the law and see ourselves as fair and beautiful, righteous and holy because we followed the law and acted like ‘good’ people. That is more like those who believed that following a proscribed ritual was all that was needed to make themselves righteous. Rather, it was that we would look into, as James puts it, the perfect law; the perfect mirror of the law that shows all our flaws, all our inability to be perfect and righteous on our own, all our inability to treat one another, the world around us, perhaps even ourselves in loving and just ways. Looking into the mirror that the law can make for us, we would see ourselves as we truly are and see how much we need Jesus. This second use of the law, Luther said, is to drive us away from being like Narcissus and endlessly admiring ourselves and, instead to turning to Jesus.
The third use of the Law, as Luther teaches, is in a sense what the entire letter of James is about: what does it look like to be a Christian? What does a Doer of the law look like? Well, for one thing, a Doer of the law might keep the rituals as proscribed for holiness, but they would not do so in order to get the right response from that Magic Mirror.
So what does that look like for us now? All this seeing and looking and hearing and listening and doing can get kind of complicated and confusing. Here’s an example. A large congregation starts a program to help children who are in a high risk neighborhood. They provide mentoring, healthy food and homework assistance after school a few days a week. This is a great program and helps many people. Surely, says the pastor, this will help us grow and gain more members, have larger offerings, because people will see that we are an organization that cares about kids. People will see us as kind, generous, loving and will think that we are a fun place to be. Good people will want to come to our church because we are doing good things! And, if it doesn’t pay off, we can try some new kind of advertising plan instead.
What’s missing there?
Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the very best church of all?
What’s missing there is the same thing that was missing with the Pharisees. Jesus. Reliance on, living for and pointing to Jesus. Just like the ritual of washing didn’t make them righteous, all the good works in the world wouldn’t make that church more “holy”; more “good”. Only Jesus does that. The work they were doing was fantastic! But doing so with the hopes of a certain kind of pay off, caring for others out of a desire to look good to the world, is grotesquely missing the point of doing the compassionate, loving work in the first place.
Here’s another example. A little church decides that, because Jesus has made a difference for them and because, without him, they never would have made it through the many difficult times in their past, they will share that love, compassion and faith with others by doing things like forgiving one another, studying God’s word together, sharing their gifts of music, cooking, organizing, and everything else, feeding and loving and working with college students as though they were their home congregations or even their own family. They decide that, because God has loved them and given them all they need, they are free to share all they have with others in the community. They decide that because Jesus has loved and accepted them as they are with all their individual flaws and gifts, they will do the same for others. They decide that because of Jesus, they want to be his hands and feet and heart in the world with things like welcoming visitors and new members with the love of Christ, reaching out to others who are different from them, who are lost, lonely and afraid both as a whole congregation and as individual people and families. They decide that maybe it isn’t about getting good people in the door but rather about being doers of the word; about being God in action in the world.
Mirror, mirror on the wall…
When we really look into the perfect mirror of the law, we do see our flaws, our shortcomings, our broken places. But we also see Jesus there, too. We never look into that mirror alone and we never have to fear what it will show us. We never have to ask the mirror who is the fairest, holiest, best of all. Truth is, mirrors don’t really tell us that anyway, we tell ourselves those things. We can be doers of the law not so that the mirror will tell us we are good but because it is good to do the good, just and right things. We are not un-holy if we make mistakes, have flaws, forget to wash our hands or because of our sin because we are like the disciples. We are made holy not because of what’s in the mirror but because of Jesus.