I find it interesting how text and context rub up against each other on common days. For instance, I went to mid-week Eucharist to retreat into the silence of sacred space, to look another person in the eyes and say “Peace be with you” and hear “…and also with you” in response. I entered thirsty, my cup empty but extended in expectation.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier things… You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup, but inside it is full of greed and self-indulgence… First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”
A match struck across my graveled heart. Featherweight herbs, tiny gnats, the exterior surface of a cup… A thought ignited. I need to clean the inside of my cup – do the internal work that justice requires.
If I spend all my energy calculating the tax rate for the herbs, I’ll be too exhausted for the heavy-lifting that just economics require. My focus on the minuscule gnat floating in my tea might divert my attention from the camel in my cup. And speaking of the cup, it’s possible I can be so fixated with a shiny exterior that I miss the unclean bits inside entirely. And it seems that the bigger deal is what happens inside that cup.
The admonition points toward doing the internal work, trusting that as I scrub the inside of the cup the outside will be cleaned in the process. And somehow the great work of justice requires clean cups, or clean hearts, able to move throughout the complexities of the world without the residue of bitterness, the debris left behind by hostility, hurt or hate. So If I clean the inside, or allow the inside to be washed by Another, then the exterior will not be my worry. But I will be clean(er) and more ready for service.
I dip my fingers into the cool basin of holy water on my way out, a final blessing as I cross the threshold and dash toward my car. I check Twitter before I even leave the parking lot. Another match – “I can’t clean my cup one tweet at a time. Cleaning my cup is off-line work…”
Here’s the thing… leaning into the weightier matters of justice involves some invisible work. I need to address my own prejudices, repent of my own judgments, pluck out the splinters obstructing my own vision – and the logs, too. I need the quiet places where I can sit, listen and maybe hear the Spirit blow by. The sight of my own complicity in systemic sins might make me weep. I may sit and read for long stretches, allowing old narratives and terrible lies believed about others to be unlearned. Maybe I need to confess my ignorance, listen to the story from a friend who knows better than I, ask questions or ask for forgiveness.
I remember Jesus talking about almsgiving, fasting and praying in private. He indicated that one hand ought not always know what the other is doing…maybe we ought to update that to say one thumb shouldn’t always know what the other thumb is texting. But privacy had some currency in spiritual formation according to Jesus, and I think it still must. I know it seems harder or counter-intuitive in this social media milieu where everything is tweeted or Instagrammed, but everything can’t be public or external.
My point is that off-line work is required. None of this is tweet-able; it’s invisible soul work. But this cup-cleaning work allows us to engage in the practice of justice with unblemished hearts and clear vision.
I am committed to pursuing justice, which means I plan to spend a lot of time at my proverbial kitchen sink of the soul cleaning cups from the inside out. It’s solitary work, often done in secret or without much fanfare. You might imagine I am ignoring the weightier things by my silence or absence, and I’ll understand the mistake. But I’m going to keep cleaning cups and try to avoid swallowing a camel. In God’s crazy upside down way – this is weightlifting. The more I do it, the more stamina I’ll have for moving mountains, enacting emancipation and participating in jubilee economics.
P.S. If you seem quiet about things, I’m going to guess that you are also cleaning some cups. Don’t tell me I’m the only one with a sink of dirty dishes in need of cleaning…