It was Maya Angelou, the African American Poet who is quoted as originating the phrase, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Certainly within the context of Angelou’s own personal history and experience of racism and of being abused, we tend to hear in those words a tenor of warning.
“Why don’t you believe a person the first time that they show you that they are lazy,(She would say in conversation about that phrase) or crazy, or unreliable or abusive, or authoritarian, or dictatorial? Why must you endure repeated episodes of them doing the very thing they have shown you they are before you begin to believe them or come to the proper conclusion?”
A lot of time and grief could be saved if you would just believe them the first time!
But there is another dimension of this quote that gets to the heart of our reluctance and it speaks to reason why we don’t believe them.
Human beings have a strong desire to believe also in the redemption of people.
We like a good story of people repenting and turning around.
Hallmark has made an art of this, of telling stories where the hard heart softens and the curmudgeon becomes likeable.
Literature is filled with story lines where the moral choice is laid before a person who in the end then turns against their nature to that point and does the right thing.
Dickens has old Scrooge become a changed man. “No one kept Christmas better..”
Jane Austen weaves tales of the perceived villain becoming the hero and the oppressed finding their freedom. Women find their voice, powerful and uncaring men are brought to heel, love wins out and justice is achieved.
“People can change!” these stories affirm. “Redemption is possible!”
We so want to believe in that possibility from the realm of Romantic fiction that we transfer it to the realm of reality. We expect redemption and change to take place and so we ignore the signals that are sent by people.
We engage (as Dickens, Austen and so many other Romantic writers did) in wishful and wistful thinking.
Such belief then often becomes the source of repeated cycles of pain in relationships, born of the fantasies that we tell ourselves.
“He’ll stop drinking when…”
“He’ll show his love to me more after he’s settled in his career, not under so much stress, not around his buddies…”
“She’ll be different after we’re married.”
We so want to believe in a good redemption story.
We even tell ourselves that the bible is full of such redemption stories. This is what Jesus came to show us, isn’t it? That everyone can be redeemed, that lives can be changed, and fresh starts can be made?
Or does it?
That’s the funny thing about working with the scriptures your whole life, the more you read the scripture, the more you discover that it does not say what you thought it said from your somewhat romantic notions of Sunday School.
Take for instance, the very first story of redemption, Noah the last righteous man on earth building an Ark and saving his family from the flood. Oh, how we elevate Noah! What faith! What trust! What devotion!
But when you read the Noah account, you find that it is not so much a story about a man redeeming himself or being redeemed by God as it is a story of how “the more things change, the more they stay the same!”
The grand story of Noah and the Ark ends with Noah drunk and cursing his own children. So much for starting creation over “fresh” with a redeemed individual!
Or the story of the Prodigal Son. How often we romantically think that the reason the younger son “comes to his senses” is that he has some redeeming self-awareness of the wrong he has done.
There is no such indicator in the story.
He’s not sorry for asking for or running though his father’s inheritance. The younger son just comes to the realization that Dad’s got more and I’d be better off working back there than starving here! So, he rehearses a speech on the way home to get into his father’s good graces again.
The more you go looking for stories of redemption in the bible, the more disappointed you become.
The “David and Bathsheba” episode does not end with a transformed David. Instead it ends with a King who is resigned to the fact that he can’t change the circumstances. “I’ll live with my mistakes and still have my Bathsheba.”
The “Good Samaritan” is not a story of redemption. The Samaritan was always the one who did the right thing. The unexpected part is that no one else seemed inclined to change at all, not the priest or the Levite. They both go on their way unchanged and unaffected by the man in the ditch.
So, if the Bible is not telling us stories that are about redemption, (about how people can be changed,) then what is it about?
In the gospel lesson from Matthew today Jesus seems to be talking about something elemental to our nature.
“You are salt….”
“You are light…”
“You are a city set upon a hill…”
The puzzlement in this teaching often revolves around us trying to figure out what Jesus means when he says that “salt has lost its saltiness and is good for nothing.” How can salt stop being salty? We find ourselves wondering, “Could that happen to me?”
Or light being hidden under a bushel. Growing up bushel baskets in my world were always woven out of wood, and so as a kid I would wonder just how this was supposed to work? If you put a candle under the apple basket, wouldn’t the whole thing go up in flames instead of hiding the light?
How do you hide a city set upon a hill?
Well, folks, the point is …. You don’t! This is meant to seem ridiculous because you can’t do any of these things!
Salt doesn’t get un-salty.
Candles under baskets don’t go out, they go up in flames and the light spills out everywhere.
Cities set upon hilltops will draw attention and be looked up to.
Which gets us back to the Maya Angelou quote from the beginning, the one we hear with a tone of warning about people? “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
We hear that with a tone of warning, but what if it is meant instead as a word of grace, coming to us as an assurance from God?
God is showing you that you are salt, and there is nothing you can do that will change that essential nature!
“Fit only to be thrown out and trampled underfoot?” Who told you that you weren’t salty anymore? Who made that judgment about you? Do you believe them rather than believing what God has to say?
We need to remember that the context for this teaching of Jesus is that it follows the Beatitudes, which is Jesus speaking to those who have been told their whole lives that they are not of much worth!
These are the poor in spirit.
These are the mourners.
These are the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness.
These are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.
Their whole lives they have been told by the powers of this world that they are nothing.
Those to whom Jesus delivers this message are not as powerful as Rome. They are not worthy of consideration for they are not citizens of the Empire. They are of little value, (in Empire’s eyes) little worthy except for what can be extracted from them, (like salt from a mine!)
And so, if Empire says you’re worthless and are good for nothing except throwing out, who are you to contradict Empire’s judgment?
Well, Jesus says here —“Let me tell you who and what you are!”
You are salt!
You are light!
You are an example set for the world, don’t let anyone (no matter how powerful they may seem right now) tell you any differently!
Seeing the teaching this way helps make sense of the rest of the teaching as well. This bit about the “jot and tittle” of the law, and coming to fulfill the law. As Salt and Light and Example all those teachings and promises of God, they still have force! They are meant for good! They have something to say to this world that is (at the moment) a bit lost in its own self-importance. None of that “goes away,” instead Jesus comes to “fulfill” it… give it power and force again.
So maybe a variation on Maya Angelou’s phrase is this:
When GOD shows you who you are, believe God the first time!
The bible you see, does not tell us Romantic stories about redemption, about bad people suddenly turning good, or feeling chastened, or changing their heart. (Heck, the whole point of the Exodus story is that some hearts namely Pharaoh’s can’t be changed… ever… even by repeated contact with God!)
No, instead of romantic notions of redemption the bible shows us a God who fiercely and powerfully loves us as we are,–warts and all – and still works with us!
This God has created us to be salt and light and an example to this world and has given the laws as guides for how to live in relationship with one another and with God.
This God chooses to work with us to bring about God’s Kingdom – even and maybe especially in the face of Empire!
Under the crushing weight of Empire, Matthew’s audience questions whether or not there is any hope anymore, do we have any hope of influencing this world?
I would argue that is once again the world in which we live, one of Empire, and so we feel much the same way. Can we make any difference by living as people who trust in God?
You feel the doubt and division that surrounds daily life.
You feel the despair of not knowing who or what to believe anymore, or who to trust even with your thoughts or feelings!
Social media assaults your senses, politicians play upon your feelings, disinformation spins all around to throw you off balance.
Up seems down, down seems up, and events leave you disoriented.
What can you hold to in the midst of all of this?
Jesus says remember who and what you are! When GOD shows you who you are, believe God the first time! Believe in the Baptismal promise of being light to shine God in this world!
You are salt!
You are light! You are a city set upon a hill – and you have something this world desperately needs…a way of living that is not the way of Empire!