Keeping up Appearances

One of my favourite TV comedy series was “Keeping up Appearances”, with Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet!). The title says it all – appearances can and do fool people. Perhaps we think leaders are most guilty of this; we look at them and say “God is using them” but so often our eyes can deceive us. But we’re all prone to the disease of external righteousness, the need to appear bigger (and better) than we really are to those around us.

In this week’s portion, we meet someone who uses such appearances.  Balak king of Moab uses Balaam, a magician and occultist, to curse Israel because he knows our nation is too strong for him. The reputation of our God has gone before us and Balak fears for himself and his people if he doesn’t stop Israel’s God.

Balaam knew how to use spiritual appearances to influence and seem powerful and project a semblance of righteousness: see what he says about himself in Numbers 23:11-15, 26, 24:4. But in fact, Balaam was an evil man. If God can use a donkey to speak, then He can also use such a man. Yeshua shows us in Matthew 7:21-27 that we cannot rely even on the presence of miracles in God’s name. Despite outward appearances, He can turn round and say “I never knew you”. Yeshua tells us that “…only those who do what my Father in heaven wants” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Torah is not just about ‘doing’ righteous things. From God’s perspective the issue is not the external form of righteousness, or even the words spoken, but the fruit of the lives lived out over time.

In Yeshua, we learn not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of Torah: our Jewish lifestyle. Read John 8:3-12. The Torah does condemn such a woman to death by stoning but at first glance Yeshua appears not to uphold it. Yes, on one level we could say that Torah demands the death of both partners in adultery but in verse 7 Yeshua does not speak of adultery, but sin in general. There is a deeper point being made: verse 9 says that the eldest walk away first. Why? Because they’ve sinned the most. And if they’ve sinned the most, then they’ve also received the most mercy from God.

Yeshua is not commenting on the validity of Torah, merely the double standards we apply into our own lives, i.e. “keeping up appearances”. Mercy will be shown to those who show mercy. Man’s righteous indignation, leading to anger and criticism of others, is rarely representative of the genuine righteous anger of God – or even of His righteousness! As Ya’acov says in James 1:19-20: swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to get angry.

The Haftarah portion backs this up. Read Micah 6:1-8. God pleads with Israel to remember what He did for them, the release from Egypt, the demonstration of His redemption and salvation before our eyes as His nation. According to the prophet, all this was given to show us the righteousness of God. What counts is what God has done for us, rather than what we offer back to Him to show ourselves righteous. God condemns the external attitude: the form rather than the fruit. Forms of righteousness are human constructs; they will be shown to be fake even if, for a while, they deceive. The fruit of righteousness, however, comes from a living relationship with God and this will survive because it’s real.

So how do we live as God wants and avoid the fake pretence of righteousness? The whole Torah is summarised in three things: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God:

  1. Do justice: the verb is active, practical. When we prevent the weaker and vulnerable members of society from being supported or helped because of wrong expectations, we stop justice from happening. When others need support and help, justice extends a hand where some may condemn. This is real justice, not a system of rights and wrongs we’ve invented for ourselves that allows us to be critical. And we need to let those who have been charged with executing justice carry it out. If you feel ‘wronged’ remember this: God sees it all and His justice is absolute.
  2. Love mercy: to love mercy is to know God and man fully, to feel the pain and the hopelessness along with God’s solutions, trusting in His ability to redeem. It connects with Yeshua’s own comments about the situation the woman found herself in. Mercy prevents fake piety and debilitating self-righteousness. It says “this could have been me” – in fact, maybe it even was… We may be glad we’re not like ‘so and so’, but remember they see your spiritual frailty as much as you see theirs. That’s why the Torah says we should esteem each other greatly, find what God IS doing in that person’s life and rejoice over that rather than the sins and weaknesses yet to be dealt with by the Lord.
  3. Walk with humility: humility is the opposite of pride, which causes sin. We are not to think of ourselves as special; we are simply redeemed and that is not due to anything we’ve done. God owes us nothing but gave us everything. Note that the verb is to walk. Movement is vital to humility; sitting in a corner will achieve nothing. The basis of such humility should be this: we have done nothing, He did everything, including our righteousness (See Romans 3:21-22). If even our righteousness has been added to us, we have nothing to boast in or to judge others on. Humility keeps the focus correct.

What does God require? Justice, mercy and humility. Such things are the fruit of a genuine life committed to God. Real justice, real mercy, real humility. Such fruit cannot be faked because it has been grown in the garden of life, cultivated over time and given by God Himself.

Parashat Balak