The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Earlier this year there was a wonderful production of the Merchant of Venice at the Globe Theatre, here in London. At the heart of this play, elegant outward appearances are used to shroud worthlessness, and beauty leads many astray. It's a story about a young woman and her young suitors. To find out more, her late father designs a challenge to test these keen young men. The test is she's only allowed to marry the man who picks the correct chest: The choice being gold, silver, or lead.
Shakespeare uses this challenge to discuss how people often wear beautiful items to cover their own ugly interior and to fool others into believing they're the beautiful person they appear to be. Here, elegant outward appearances are used to mask worthlessness, and beautiful facades mislead others.
The gold chest shows just how many people are fooled by external appearances. It's inscribed with the promise, 'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire? The scroll inside the chest also discusses how much people depend upon appearance. It reveals that many people will throw their lives away, just to have money or gold.
The silver chest is used to signify importance, and it shows how this metal is used to improve faulty appearances. It bears the inscription: 'Who chooseth me will get as much as he deserves?' The scroll inside the silver chest, in cryptic English, reveals that there certainly are old fools who people assume are wise—because of their age, and their silver hair. It also shows how silver is used to gloss over minor faults, how it captivates people with its beauty, how it prevents them examining one's true character.
The lead chest is the only chest unmarred by false ornament, showing its real character. The lead's inscribed, not with a promise, as with the previous two chests, but with a warning. It reads, 'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath?' Because lead isn't used to make things beautiful, its inner value is on the outside. Lead is the only chest that shows its true values on the surface, and doesn't cover over its faults.
In this play, ornaments are used to deceive people into feeling that an object or another person is more than they appear to be. The entire 'chest challenge' is set up by Portia's late father to ensure that her future husband is not fooled by outward appearances, and will always see the true value in things. Shakespeare demonstrates through the three chests, how most people are fooled by externals.
In a similar way, Jesus warns us that it's just not good enough to be clean or resplendent on the outside, with a façade that does not reflect our true inner being.
Jesus is fundamentally concerned with inner things: 'Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?' So the inside is utterly crucial to Jesus. What we are in the deep, private recesses of our lives is what he cares about most.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book called Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. He tells us that good can't be something external to us or we will inevitably come to resent it.
'The path and the place are within each of us. And just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul's continual transformation.'
In other words, it's by looking inside ourselves that we will find the Good the focus that allows us to orient our lives to find wholeness and escape the inevitable pain of 'double-mindedness.' Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing is not a bad title, provided of course, that the one thing we will is the glory of God. And yet, both Shakespeare and Kierkegaard recognised that actually appearances really do matter to the world. It's fiercely grounded within our contemporary culture and recognised by young and old alike. Subconsciously, we evaluate character, potential, talent, even the worth of people, on how they look.
At the time of Jesus outward appearances mattered in the assessment of faith. In addition to strict observance of the law, it was also reflected in the practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, determining how righteous a person was and how close they were to God. But Jesus had something very different to say: 'Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realising it'.
As we learn more of God, as our faith grows and matures, we are increasingly aware of the ways in which we stand far from the kingdom of God. We know our inadequacies, but we believe in the God who can make that kingdom of grace and justice possible, who has, in fact, already shown us through Jesus Christ how it can be lived out from our hearts. True faith is found not on the outside by what can be observed but in our hearts. As disciples we must make sure that the sincerity of our faith is shown by what we say and do and that our actions reflect a true faith. We can learn from the challenge set by Portia's father: not to be fooled by outward appearances, represented by gold and silver, but have the eyes to see the true value of inner things. We do well to remember the symbolism of the lead chest, holding its inner value on the outside.
Similarly, Kierkegaard and other great spiritual writers remind us, that this ultimately concerns the Christian journey of faith, coming to know ourselves in relationship with God and one another and bringing our inner hearts and outer actions together so that in all ways we are reflections of God's own image.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully. (Psalm 24: 3–4)