Based on Matthew 15: 10-28
The importance of building character is not something new. Socrates, over two and half centuries ago stated, that “Nobody has become a good person by chance. We need to learn it. Yes, we build who we are on the inside much like we would build a house outside. It takes time, other people to help and it is all built on a strong foundation. Character is at the core of who you and I are. What is there, and what is not there matters. The content of your character matters.
When we are talk about our character, or our heart, we are talking about who we are on the inside. We are talking about what makes us who we are. We are reflection on why we behave the way we behave. In Gospel reading today we have two distinct examples of Jesus responding to the character around them. First, we have the negative example of the Pharisees. This group of people are well educated, socially respected, wealthy, well dressed and are authorities in the local community. This group of powerful religious leaders were concerned with the external rightness of how Israel is to behave. They did not appear to particularly care for what was in the heart of Israel at the time. Their chief concern was about proper behaviour. They were focused on the appearance and personality of their people, and not necessarily who they were on the inside. Perhaps is why Jesus states, “Whatever comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” They were not looking at what was going on deep within themselves. Instead they were pointing out away from themselves at all the ‘bad’ that could get into them. Point to the food, the fashion and the appropriate social customs. The Pharisees as a whole could only do this if their heart was arrogant, and on the inside, truly believe that they knew they were right, and everyone else was wrong. To help galvanize this personality and outlook, the Torah was treated like a rule book instead of a life book. Remember the old saying, take the plank out of your own eye, before to point out the spec in someone else’s? Well the Pharisees were only focused on the spec in the other, and were willfully ignored the plank in their own.
In contrast, in very next scene we have Jesus talking with a complete outsider. She is not Jewish, and was loudly ranting and raving as she pleaded for help. Like the Pharisees, the disciples urge Jesus not to engage her. She was not behaving the right way. She looked unkempt and did not come from the right people to approach them. Then she makes herself small, humbly kneeling before him as she pleads with Jesus for help. She knew who Jesus was, and she was not going to let social customs, culture or anything else get in the way. She had a strong character. After Jesus clearly states his intended mission she responds with a fair, honest and direct statement of what Godly justice would be for her and others. Her character is fair, pointed, bold and deep and the God of all God’s responds with mercy. Clearly the content of our character matters, since Jesus directly responds to it with this person.
What is character
A person’s character is the mental and moral qualities that are distinctive about you.
A person’s personality are the things that make them interesting and attractive. You character is about your inside. Your personality is how that character is expressed on the outside.
For example, what if someone learned ways of influencing others but they were really selfish underneath all of it in their heart or character. What if they just wanted to use others to build their own economic success. They may develop smoothness in their relationships so that they can have their own personal goals of money, fame or whatever achieved. They really could not care less about their contribution, service to others or purpose in life. How much trust would you have in them. How would you be able to follow them or rely on them when things get tough? Their personality is great, but their character is less that desirable.
To be clear, how we do things matters. We want to attract and not scare. We want to talk with others appropriately and be engaging so we can be received well. However, when we use our personality to cover for own lack of character, we become manipulative and end up causing pain to others and ourselves. Trust will be undermined and so will confidence in our relationship. That means that we must work on our inside before we work on how we focus on how we present themselves. The content of our character matters.
A long time ago there was a boy. He was smart, talented and handsome. However, he was very sad, and selfish. His temper was so bad, that nobody wanted to be friends with him. When he got angry and frustrated he lashed out saying various hurtful things to people around him.
The boy‘s parents were very concerned about his bad temper. They talked all the time about what they could do to help the boy. One day the father had an idea. He called his son and gave him a hammer and a bag of nails. The father said: “Every time you get angry, take a nail and drive into that old hard oak fence as hard as you can.”
The fence was very tough and the hammer was heavy. None of that mattered to the boy when he was angry. He drove in 37 nails on the first day.
Day after day, week after week, the number of nails gradually decreased. After along while the boy started to understand that holding his temper is easier that driving nails into the fence. Finally, one day the boy did not need the hammer and nails any longer. He learned to hold his temper. Excited, the boy he came to his father and shared his achievement. The father then said, “Now every time, when you hold your temper all day long, pull out one nail “.
Weeks passed and the boy could be proud of himself as all the nails were gone. When he came to his father and told him the nails were all gone the father sent him back to the fence and asked him to really look at it. “My son, you did a great job. Now really look at the holes left in my fence. It will never be the same. The same things happen when we are careless with our words, and do not pay attention to what is going on in your heart. Words, and actions can leave scars as much as they can pound or pull a nail. The scars in a heart are like those in the fence. Everyone one needs to be treated with love and respect that comes from a good, love filled heart. Sometimes it does not matter that you are sorry, the scars will not disappear. My friends the content of our character matters.
We can change our hearts and our character by changing what we do. We have habits that we can learn and some that we need to unlearn. Habits matter. Your habits matter. Habits help form and program how we think, speak and act. You can’t buy it. You can’t change it with clothing. You are not born with good character. You are responsible for your character through the choices that you make to build it. Those little, thoughtless habits that we all have, impact who we are as people, and who we are as people before God too.
As a parish, if our personality is not rooted in our character as Christians – which is passionate and compassionate disciples of Jesus Christ – we will not endure. We will not be nearly as effective as we want to be and we will end up frustrated, upset and feeling like failures – which we aren’t.
The content of our character matters because it is from here that the Holy Spirit choose to work out from in the world. It is from here that we carry our God’s mission in the world. It is from here that God chooses to help each and everyone of us be new, better and more Godly people. There are people here today with a depth of character that I am personally still learning from. The content of our character matters to us, because it matters to God.
Take time this week to really reflect on where you need to grow in your heart. Let us take an inside to outside approach to the challenges that are before you. What would happen if you paused, got in touch with what is really going on inside and then responded from deep on the inside instead of reacting quickly? Perhaps you need to set a goal to make a difference for someone at work, home, in your neighbourhood or at this parish. The more you focus on serving others the more you will feel ‘real’. Your character will grow and you will build more trust in relationships that are precious to you. The content of your character matters to God, because God loves you. Does your character matter to you? If it does, how are you going to improve it this week, and every week after that. Amen.