One of my favorite characters from all of British Television is Hyacinth Bucket. That’s spelled B-U-C-K-E-T, Bucket. Hyacinth is the star of a show called Keeping Up Appearances, and that title tells you almost everything you need to know about Hyacinth: her life is about appearances.
Hyacinth comes from a very humble background; she grew up poor and rather unsophisticated and her singular mission in life is to get as far away from her humble beginnings as she can get. Hyacinth wants to mingle and rub elbows with the aristocracy. She wants people to think that she is cultured and erudite and well bred. Most importantly Hyacinth wants people to think that she has money. Hyacinth has three sisters, but the only one she will speak of publicly is her sister Violet, the one with the swimming pool, sauna and room for a pony.
I was just watching an episode recently, where Hyacinth was excited that her husband gave her a home security system for their anniversary. She wasn’t excited because she was worried about her stuff being stolen; she was excited because now the neighbors might think she had stuff worth stealing. As the title implies, with Hyacinth, it’s all about appearances. If she can’t be rich, at least she wants to appear rich.
I love Hyacinth Bucket, but like the rest of the characters in the show, I wouldn’t want to live next to her. I love her, because I think I understand her, at least I understand the temptation to be her. I think it is great for people to want to improve themselves: to improve their education, their situation, their skills, their habits, their morals even. I share those desires. But the problem with Hyacinth is that appearances mean more to her than reality. She doesn’t understand that appearing great and actually being great are two very different things; and her obsession with appearing rich, sophisticated, well-connected, influential, virtuous and otherwise perfect is always drawing attention to just how far away from those ideals she really is.
Appearing great and being great are not the same thing. It’s a lesson that Hyacinth never learns.
It’s a lesson a lot of people never learn.
Two of Jesus’s followers, James and John, two brothers from a humble background, they have a special request for Jesus. You may remember that when Jesus first met James and John they were in the boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets. When Jesus called they quickly got up and followed him, leaving their father behind. Well now James and John they have a special request for Jesus. When Jesus finally comes into his kingdom, they want to be seen on either side of him, one on his left and one on his right. They want to be seen at the head table. They want people to see that they are close to Jesus. To be on either side of Jesus, that is the most visible place in the room. If they are seen there, then people will think that they are great, just like Jesus. There’s just one problem with their request: appearing great and being great are not the same thing.
In fact, in Jesus’s kingdom, appearances don’t count for much at all. Jesus didn’t come into this world to appear holy. He didn’t appear to pray; he didn’t appear to care for the sick or the poor; he didn’t appear to forgive sins; he didn’t appear to serve others. He didn’t appear to suffer and die; he didn’t appear to rise again. He didn’t appear to do any of those things, he did them. Jesus didn’t appear great, he was great.
Appearing great, and being great are not the same thing. Jesus was great.
We are not great. We can and should try to improve ourselves; we should seek to grow in wisdom and virtue; we should try to serve others as Jesus instructed us to do, but we must accept that we are not truly good or great, not like he was. Pretending to be otherwise only highlights how far we are from Jesus, not our closeness to him. Our lives are tainted with sin. All of our lives, even the most noble among us. We are not great. That is what makes Jesus’s willingness to bear our sins and burdens such an astounding thing: We are not great, we are ignorant and wayward, and yet our great high priest still deals gently with us. In the end, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross in his moment of ultimate sacrifice, the two individuals closest to him, the one on his right hand and the one on his left, were two sinners; criminals that Jesus died to save. And to the one that admits that he is not great and in need of Jesus’s mercy, that is the one that Jesus invites into paradise.
Jesus knew that James and John were a mess when he called them. Jesus knows what a mess all of us are when he calls us to follow him. He knows that we’re not that great. And yet he calls us, and is willing to die for us anyways. We are always going to be tempted with appearing great though. There will always be this voice in our heads saying: “If people see you sitting next to Jesus, maybe they won’t notice what a sinner you are. Maybe they will think you are great too.” We tell ourselves: as long as people think I’m great, they won’t realize what a mess I truly am. Maybe I’ll forget too.
It’s a dangerous temptation. Anytime the church as an institution, or we as individuals opt for keeping up appearances, rather than being real, and getting dirty with Jesus in the messy world of real service and sacrifice, we risk doing great damage. We have done great damage. Hyacinth is loveable and benign, but make no mistake, caring more about appearances than truth is a dangerous game. Wanting to be seen next to Jesus, without actually wanting to serve him, is the devil’s playground.
Jesus called two humble fishermen to follow him, he knew who James and John were when he called them. Getting prime seating at the banquet, or getting a good selfie with Jesus, is not going to change who they are. Their request to be seen next to Jesus, only highlights how far away from him they actually are. Jesus did not come into the world to create a phony public relations campaign; he came to offer himself as a true servant and a real sacrifice for real sinners. Appearances don’t count much for Jesus.
Hyacinth proves it over and over again: the more you try to keep up appearances, the more you prove how far you truly are from being the real thing.