Behind the Mask

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the March 7, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.” 1 Thessalonians 2:5, NIV

Perhaps it is more than fitting that this lesson comes during the dolorous, penitential season of Lent. During Mardi Gras masks were worn and inhibitions to some degree were cast aside, while identities were hidden symbolically or in reality. Immediately following, the mummers, chastened somewhat by the side effects of their excesses, remove their masks and don the ashes of penance. This dramatic about face offers by example the biblical injunction for repentance with these penitents marching through the Lenten weeks toward Good Friday and the Easter weekend.

There is something primal about the wearing of masks. Many of the most primitive civilizations have fashioned masks and associated them with spiritual ceremonies. For Christians the idea of hiding behind a mask may carry negative connotations. It can indicate the desire to deceive or to have a hidden agenda. When we consider the biblical history associated with deceit, this may be understandable.

Near the very beginning, the Bible narrative relates the story of the serpent which deceived Eve.[i] While this early account does not identify the serpent beyond being a serpent, by the end of the Bible, the identity of the serpent is posited as Satan, who is referred to as that “ancient serpent,”[ii] perhaps harking back to this initial encounter. If Satan used a disguise, the appearance of a serpent, to deceive Eve, then this may help explain the association of masks with deceit. This may also explain why so many are fearful of snakes without really being able to give a reason why. However, it is not the mask, but the one behind it who may be practicing deceit, thus this revulsion toward snakes may be better served by being directed toward the one behind the deception. By concentrating on the illusion created by the mask too closely, we may find that there was nothing behind the mask at all and the evil deception has entered in another way.

Magic is nothing more than the art of deception. Crowds are fascinated by what they cannot explain, but the only reason they cannot explain it is because they are not allowed to see behind the scenes where the deception is created. However, even within the deceit there is a deceit. For if the magician simply said, “Don’t look here! Instead look over here!” we would not be deceived and would instead look where he told us not to look and discover the trick. Instead the performer through his or her patter and exaggerated movements draws our eyes away from what he or she does not wish us to see. Then when the deception is fully blossomed, the crowds are amazed by the “miracle.” The magician, who has been willingly paid for deceiving us, then pockets his fee, packs up the magical apparatuses, and travels in search of another location with more crowds with money in their pockets, who are willing to pay to be deceived.

Sadly, many in this world have chosen to be on either one side of the mask or the other, either deceiving or being deceived. Those who are doing the deceiving may be doing so for many reasons. They may deceive to exercise power and control over another. In this case knowledge is power and when they have knowledge of the facts and their victim does not, the balance of power shifts markedly in their favor. This may have much to do with why violent crime so often happens in the shadows of the night. Concealment gives the predator a decided advantage over their prey. Night gives the impoverished thief, robber, or murderer the concealment that the more refined criminal does not need, because they can afford the more expensive means of remaining hidden – masks made up of bribes, accomplices, and other means of misdirection and confusion. Without such masks, these criminals would be placed on a level playing field with the rest of society and much evil would cease to be possible.

Some may also wear masks because they do not like themselves and wish to conceal their true persona to remain hidden from view. These may have been ridiculed or victimized in the past and now seek the shadows to avoid further pain. These may be like the child who has a festering splinter in their finger, but through fear of further pain, refuses to let a healer deal with it and end the pain the splinter is causing. Their mask, intended to prevent pain, may have become the primary barrier to dealing with that pain and ending it. Sometimes the pain we fear may be the instrument of healing and restoration, and it is waiting just on the other side of our mask.

Some may also wear masks because they have long since ceased to care about the world around them. They will don a mask of caring without ever really doing anything that actually demonstrates caring. There are those who are well-to-do that will say they care about the poor, yet characterize them as lazy, drug-addicted moochers. They might even say that they would hire the poor if only they were willing to work instead of lying around all day. Yet their job offerings are only open to those previously experienced. They are unwilling to take on the expense of training the disadvantaged for those jobs. They must get the skills elsewhere. For these mask-wearers, the mask is a barrier to keep out all that is disagreeable. Without the mask, their lack of compassion would be offensive to the world, and that world might compel them to change, so the mask remains.

These and many others who wear masks would not be able to do so if it were not for those who support the idea of concealment, the people on the other side of the mask. Like the crowds with the magician, they are willing to contribute to the deception by providing the means for “the show to go on.” Why do they do this? Perhaps it is because they are also invested in altering reality for similar agendas. They may covet the apparent power of the one behind the mask and fantasize that they are that person or can eventually be that person. By maintaining the illusion of the mask and being willingly deceived, they may keep that vision alive and their hope to attain it as well. These are like those who would be upset if the magician’s artifices were disclosed, for in spoiling the illusion, their aspirations are dashed as well. Perhaps this is what keeps the levers of the one-armed bandits in the casinos moving, and also maintains the sale of billions of cardboard lottery tickets. Not only the probability but even the possibility of winning is so remote that the chances of being killed by a shark[iii] may be over 40 times more likely.[iv] Yet, like the crowd for the magician, the dollars keep flowing to keep the illusions coming.

Strangely, these individuals would perhaps never see the similarities between their self-deception and that of those who have given up entirely on reality. Such persons may prefer to have as little basis in reality as possible, choosing instead to live in the past that never was, the present that does not exist, or the future that never will be. Their only involvement in mundane affairs is to whatever extent is necessary to fund their continuing disengagement with reality. Much of their life may be spent in fantasy, either through an acting out of their fantasy physically, immersing in that reality virtually with the assistance of computer rendered artificial constructs, or through mind altering substances. Each, in their own way, creates an alternate reality where they feel empowered in a way they do not in their current existence. These, perhaps more than any other, crave the illusion. When the illusion replaces reality so completely, it can be hard to break free. Even wanting to do so will seem ridiculous because the constructs of the fantasy have become reality. The mask becomes truth.

Perhaps this is why Jesus calls us to the truth. He is trying to set us free from the desire for illusion spawned so long ago in that Edenic idyll at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Back then paradise was not found in the illusion, but outside of it. It is still the same today. Our desire to be deceived will only lead us out of paradise and not toward it. Like children eating moist patties of dirt and calling them pies, we will be deceiving ourselves into substituting the illusion for the real. Why should we settle for mud covered with the glamour of illusion when the delectable pie of reality is so easily grasped?

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[v]

[i] Genesis 3

[ii] Revelation 12:7-9

[iii] "What are the odds of a shark attack?",

[iv] Calculated based on a $175,000,000.00 Powerball Jackpot.

[v] John 8:32



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