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Speaking to the Soul: Form and Function

Speaking to the Soul: Form and Function

Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23

There is a basic law of aesthetic beauty that mandates form should follow function. When form displaces function, the results can be pretty ugly. That’s a caveat at the core of this week’s gospel. The clerical nitpickers from the big city are out to give Jesus a hard time. And not surprisingly, to their overly dramatized disgust, the Pharisees and scribes find lots to criticize. But, like so many of their colleagues, they are infinitely out-matched when they tangle with Jesus.

Christ sees right through their trivial carping and calls them on it. And to expose their hypocrisy, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: These people show honor to me with words…Their worship is worthless. They are all form and no function. They haven’t the least intention of doing any good whatsoever; they only want to be seen to be doing good. That’s because they love themselves, not God. Form that originated in the solemn function of worship had degenerated into self-promoting vanity. They are sacrilegiously playing a game of ritual one-upmanship to feed their all-consuming pride.

How satisfying it is for us to point fingers back across the centuries. The self-righteous Pharisees make such easy targets. But Jesus gives us this gospel for instruction not for recreation. So before we cast a stone at hypocrites of old, a little spiritual inventory is in order.

What are our priorities? Are we majoring in the minors … more form than function? Are we worshiping God with our words and ignoring him with our lives? Are we so consumed with the stuff of this life, that we have lost our grip on the staff of life? For most of us, for most of the time, the honest answer is … yes, we have. Eternity seems over our horizons, gratification is here and now. For the moment, we deceive ourselves thinking that the easy form of occasional ritual prayer can substitute for the demanding function of a life in Christ.

But as Jesus teaches in this gospel, the function of loving and serving God is primary. Its form is always a distant second. It is not the externals. It is the internals. Ritual does not keep us right with God. Righteousness does. And that righteousness comes from living actively and openly in harmony with the great commandment: to love God and neighbor with our whole heart and soul. It’s that simple; and that complicated. It is a life of a million decisions, both large and small, directed toward our principle function… aligning our purpose with those of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. But, as in art, a life where form faithfully follows function is truly a thing of beauty.

In his classic short story “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” Oscar Wilde grotesquely illustrates Christ’s final point in this gospel: There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Dorian Gray was a golden boy. Stunningly handsome, polished… an accomplished, secretive seducer… a practitioner of every vice. Physically he was perfection. Spiritually he was a hideous portrait of evil. Wilde’s allegory directly mirrors the message of this gospel: For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… and they defile a person. Conversely the human heart transformed by grace is a channel of peace and beauty. It transforms our lives and those of all we touch.

God sees our hearts clearer than we can see the palms of our hands. He is not deceived by form. Christ calls us to function… to our appointed work in the world… to build his kingdom… to witness his love. Get the function right and the form will follow.


The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.


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Philip B. Spivey

I find it difficult to place Dorian Gray in the same category as the run-of-the-mill ‘evil doer’. By virtue of the times—the Victorian Era; the author—a persecuted homosexual; and Dorian himself—as least as portrayed on film, very likely a closeted homosexual [I must admit to not reading the book].

These facts provide a context that speaks more to the violence that oppression breeds, and less to an inherent narcissism or idolatry. Dorian is beautiful and the choice of the actor, Hurd Hatfield, to play the role in the 1945 film, leaves no doubt in my mind that Dorian was homosexual. With that as a basic assumption, the travails of Dorian make perfect sense: his fundamental deceit is his sexual orientation; and because he cannot be truly himself, he exacts retribution on the world.

The lynch pin of the story is that neither his portrait nor his person ages; he is ageless and remains beautiful over a span of decades; his eternal beauty is the ONLY thing that permits him to exact his retribution. Only in death, do we see his ‘true’ soul revealed.

As gruesome as the corpse, and portrait become, the cautionary tale here has less to do with evil, per se, and more to do with the costs of self-abnegation. Dorian’s social environment fed by the idolatry of him and allowed Dorian to live out the fantasy of being a heterosexual man long past the shelf-life of that fantasy. As a result, he was never forced to look beyond the externals in his life; he never had to face the wreckage done to his soul because he lived his fantasy too long. But in the last scene of the film, we are witnesses to that carnage.

Thank the Lord, we can age and take advantage of its gifts.

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