“Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep” – so said Carl Sandburg. Sandburg (1878–1967) was not a Christian but he wrote interesting poems. It is not certain exactly what he meant by the above-mentioned quote, and it is understood in different ways. Although the quote does not have its origin in the Bible, it resonates with Biblical concepts.
The skin of the onion is what everyone sees in the grocery store. Likewise, the people around us at work and in the community see us in our skin. We could say that most often they have a skin-deep view of what we are like. They see what we allow them to see. This is the public layer. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were only concerned with the public layer of their lives. They prayed in the streets with great swelling words. When they fasted, they made sure it was evident in their emaciated faces. In the temple a seat was positioned opposite the collection box giving opportunity for spectators to applaud the amount of money they poured into the coffers. They desired an image which would impress others, but inwardly we know what they were like. The public layer is not unimportant– the way we look, the way we behave, the way we relate, but it does not necessarily represent the true you.
We take the onion out of the pantry and remove the skin and perhaps the next layer which is often woody and dry. Now we begin to get a sense of what the onion is like beneath the surface – its colour, its smell, whether it has any defects. As we step out of the public domain and into the private setting of our homes, the outer layers are shed from our lives. The more ‘natural’ you, the more ‘relaxed’ you, the more ‘candid’ you comes to the fore. Just as we take off the outer layers of jackets, scarves, and shoes, so we cast off the persona that we have maintained in the world. In one sense that is not wrong and to be expected. None of us relate to our families at a shopping centre exactly as we do at home. It means that those closest to us experience us in ways that others do not. How often have we heard stories of a kindly and courteous man being entirely different toward his wife and children in private. With the outer layers removed, the real you gets greater exposure.
It is not unusual to take a fine-looking onion, peel away the skin, slice through the middle only to find that it is rotten at its core. When that is the case, the rottenness will eventually permeate the whole of the onion. The heart of the onion is the onion. So it is with us. We are what we are in the deepest recesses of the heart – that place which is closed off to everyone else, where our desires, motives and attitudes are housed; that place where only we visit and only God can see. This is the place we must be fundamentally concerned with because it shapes our lives. The gauge of spiritual health is not what we are in public, it is not even what we are in front of those closest to us, but ultimately, what we are when we are on our own, when we are left to ourselves. The inner, private, secret core beneath those other layers is the real you.
Let us not us not fool ourselves with the religion of the Pharisees – the outer layers of public acceptance and applause. Matt 5:20, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” If we do not hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are playing a game of pretence and hypocrisy. It will end in tears – as so often peeling an onion does.