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Whitewashed walls

Whitewashed walls

Psalm 63:1-8(9-11), 98 (Morning)

Psalm 103 (Evening)

Joshua 6:15-27

Acts 22:30-23:11

Mark 2:1-12

You know, some insults just get lost over time.

In today’s reading from Acts, Paul flings a curse at Ananias that probably doesn’t register with us–he calls Ananias “a whitewashed wall.” He also quickly retracts his statement. (“Ooops. Sorry. Didn’t know I was insulting the high priest.”) What’s up with that whitewashed wall business?

Well, this is one of those times being rural helps.

It wasn’t that many years ago that people were more likely to whitewash their barn rather than paint it. Most old barns in rural northeast Missouri are not red, interestingly enough–they’re white, because particularly during the Depression, no one could afford paint. It was far cheaper to mix a bag of slack lime with water, add a little chalk, salt, and a dash of linseed oil for adherence, and slap that on a barn, a picket fence, or a shed. To people of my late grandparents’ era, it was a marker of rural poverty–“He’s too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint,” was a phrase my grandparents threw around from time to time. Yet it was better than nothing–the ingredients were cheap, it was relatively thin, easy to apply (even a kid could do it–remember Tom Sawyer being sent out to whitewash the fence?) provided at least some protection over a bare surface, and from a distance, at least, it looked halfway decent.

The problem with whitewash is it never really covers up anything substantial, like an old paint color or graffiti. You can always see anything that’s under whitewash if the sun hits it right. It fades quickly in the hot summer sun, so some surfaces need to be whitewashed every year.

It’s evidently one of the oldest forms of exterior decoration. Even Jesus illustrated the metaphorical nature of whitewash in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”

In this light, we start to see the nature of Paul’s insult. “I can see right through you, Ananias. You look painted and clean from a distance, but I see the graffiti marring your soul! You haven’t covered it up THAT well!”

Of course, the truth is that we all have something about us that is a tad whitewashed, and even the dirtiest of us has the occasional white and gleaming surface. In Paul’s case, it’s probably the fact he sticks his foot in his mouth a little too often. Every one of us has something that, at best, we’ve treated with a thin veneer of whitewash. Maybe we simply gave up trying to cover it at all and simply leave it exposed to the elements in the hope it fades. Experience teaches us that it never quite does. All one has to do is drive through small rural towns to see the remnants of 80 year old Bull Durham Tobacco ads still faintly clinging to brick walls of old store buildings to realize that.

Our story in Acts ties in with our other two readings: In Mark, the paralytic had pretty much given up. It was his friends who bore him to see Jesus, even bringing him in through the roof to get him there. It’s a reminder that when others are too tired or have given up, we can still take them to Jesus’ healing touch. In Joshua, we are reminded that sometimes, the way to restoration is to take those graffiti-laden walls down with God’s help and rebuild.

What is something you’ve been whitewashing for a long time that is in need of real resurrection? Is there something you’re too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint, that awaits transformation and restoration?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

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