Most of us wear a “pharisaic” outer mask. The mask is the person we pretend to be—the personality that we show the world, but not the person we are inside.
This reminds me of a song by Ginny Owens in which she sings, “I am a gifted artist. I’ve learned to paint this canvas well. I work until I finish an ideal image of myself. I am a storyteller, quite brilliant, if I do say so. I tell them tales they want to hear, and they believe it’s me they know.”
God, of course, knows better. Granted, there is a certain usefulness to the mask because in many ways we need it to function in this extremely extraverted world. Unfortunately, many of us tend to identify so completely with the mask that we actually come to believe that we are the person we pretend to be, and so remain unconscious of our real selves.
When we ignore the feelings and thoughts that lie within us, a gulf arises between the outer mask and the inner reality. Suddenly, we are no longer the person we seem to be but we become what might be considered a “poser” of our true selves. And that it is why it is so important to reconcile those parts of us.
“If we would belong to the kingdom,” John A. Sanford says, “this false outer front must go.” The gulf between the “seem” and “is” must shrink, he says, and we must dare to be ourselves and no longer hide behind a façade.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees as “hypocrites,” which in the first century simply meant “actor.” At that time, actors literally wore masks that depicted the roles they were playing. So, a hypocrite was a mask-wearer, the one who was not real but acting a role in life.
But God always knows what is going on behind the mask because the God whom Jesus proclaimed is the God
“unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” (The Collect, 1928 Book of Common Prayer)
Where God is concerned, nothing can remain in darkness. As long as we continue to identify with the outer mask, we exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, Sanford says, if we sacrifice the outer mask, take the risk of being ourselves, whoever that might be, we bring about our own salvation.
The story of Zacchaeus the tax collector is a wonderful illustration of this. Despised by the general public, tax collectors were ruthless extortionists. Absolutely unscrupulous. But Zacchaeus clearly had heard about Jesus and the stories stirred something within him. He desperately wanted to see this man he’d heard about, but because he was short, he was unable to see over the crowds. So, he did the only thing he could think of doing—he climbed a tree. But, not just any tree. A sycamore tree.
Details in the Bible always being important, it is worthwhile knowing that sycamore trees in Israel are unlike the ones we know here. They are actually Ficus sycomorus, a member of the Nettle family. They produce a small and bitter fig-like fruit that was eaten by the poor, and therefore, wasn’t a well-respected tree. As a matter of fact, it was somewhat of a disgrace to have anything to do with it. So, in essence, it was a self-inflicted public humiliation for Zacchaeus to climb the sycamore tree.
Seeing this, it was easy for Jesus to call him down. Clearly he was a man ready for the Kingdom of God. Jesus even says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” (Luke 19: 9-10)
And, almost immediately, Zacchaeus becomes a new man.
In our dreams, the mask is sometimes represented by nakedness. The situation around one’s nakedness will help reveal which mask we are hiding behind.
This is why Jesus often uses children to represent who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Little children have no mask. They are spontaneous and express directly what they feel with no intention of producing a desired effect. At least, that is, until the adult world forces them to do otherwise by approving of one side of their personality and disapproving of other aspects. By the time we reach adulthood, the mask is well in place.
We will never become people with no “shadowy” or “dark” thoughts, Sanford says. We all have murderous thoughts and adulterous feelings. We will continue to be jealous or to covet and struggle with our self-control. The trick is to NOT leave those thoughts “in our hearts,” that is, buried in our subconscious. We need to recognize our thoughts and feelings for what they are. Then, they are no longer “in the heart” but brought out into the open.
“We may lose some of our moral self-esteem in this way,” Sanford says, “but we also lose our mask and gain moral humility.”
Removing the mask will mean confronting something in ourselves that is unpleasant and that we probably won’t like. This is what Sanford calls our “inner adversary” or perhaps, adversaries, for some of us. This/These are the unwanted side(s) of our personalities that caused us to put on the mask in the first place.
Next Week: The Inner Adversary