Sense and Ostensibility

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, 1 Samuel 28:3-20, Acts 15:1-11, Mark 5:1-20


Ostensible:
adjective, outwardly appearing as such; professed; pretended:
an ostensible cheerfulness concealing sadness.

Quite often people conceal the reasons for their actions from other people (and possibly also from themselves) by offering reasonable-sounding explanations to cover their tracks. One such example is the history of Jim Crow laws enacted after the Civil War. Ostensibly, literacy tests and proof-of-residency requirements were instituted in many states to make sure voters could comprehend the ballot and were qualified to vote. Of course the real reason was to disenfranchise black voters who prior to emancipation had often not been allowed to learn to read, and whose residency documentation was at best a bill of sale. The true intentions were revealed when the voting rights of illiterate white voters were grandfathered in. ‘

The legacy of Jim Crow continues today, as evidenced when the Supreme Court overturned recent North Carolina voting laws which were ostensibly about preventing voter fraud but blatantly targeted African-American and Hispanic voters.

This kind of behavior is neither particularly modern nor particularly American. As more and more gentiles began to convert to Christianity, many of the Jews who became the first followers of Christ didn’t believe they were legitimate. They began to demand that gentile converts be circumcised, as Jews were. After some deliberation, Peter said: “[I]n cleansing their hearts by faith [God] has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” On the surface their concerns may have sounded legitimate, but scrutiny revealed them to be little more than cultural bias against the gentiles.

Part of being “innocent as doves and wise as serpents” is knowing when reasonable explanations like tradition, cost, loyalty, or practicality hide unsavory motives. One big clue is when a group who has been historically marginalized – particularly if they have been gaining ground – suffers disproportionately as a result. The Pharisees had “good reasons” to crucify Christ; let’s be wary of smooth talkers who are readying the nails.


Additional Reading:
Read more about today’s passage from Acts in Entrance Exams.
For additional thoughts on Mark, see The Devils You Know.

Comfort: You’re smart enough to figure out what’s really going on.

Challenge: Don’t play dumb.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to see hard truth and resist attractive lies. Amen.

Discussion: What are some examples of good reasons for not-so-good actions?

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