‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (7:21)
Jesus always has a very unapologetic way for putting his teachings across. Sometimes he does so by way of planned discourses, some other times as a reaction against people’s misunderstanding of true religion. Today we have the latter of these ways as Jesus argues with the Pharisees concerning the observance of Jewish purity customs. These customs tried to ensure the people’s cleanliness for worship from a merely physical point of view; they prescribed what foods to avoid, what individuals not to touch, and how to ceremonially wash everyday things. As the disciples stand accused of not respecting these rules Jesus launches himself in a vitriolic criticism. Here we see that Jesus aims at reinterpreting the spirit of such purity laws according to their proper, original aims. As we catch the tail end of his words, we see also that Jesus identifies the human heart as the true source of ritual uncleanliness, rather than any material thing that cannot touch the soul and stain it.
In ancient Jewish culture the heart is the centre of the person (both body and soul), the place where thoughts, desires, and passions are formed. Jesus takes this concept to its logical conclusion: it is from the heart, from this innermost centre, that any selfish or self-serving desires must come leading the person into socially destructive behaviours. Crucially Jesus affirms that both desires and actions are the true cause of defilement - not as physical dirt but as stains on the soul. We can readily observe what Jesus means when, after having consciously wronged somebody or God, we feel guilty and maybe also dirty, even though our bodies may be spotlessly clean. Yet, Jesus goes a step further still. In the comprehensive list of sinful behaviours he provides we are taught that spiritual uncleanliness is not a just personal matter; rather it is something that involves those around us as well. How? ‘Theft, murder, deceit’ to name a few, all affect and necessarily harm others leaving a stain on us – perhaps not bodily, but certainly on our souls. Indeed, for Jesus sin may originate in the privacy of one’s heart, but its consequences are far reaching; sin might be thought as a private thing, but it is social in nature.
So, in short, toady Jesus tells us, “It’s not the world; it’s you who has a problem”.
But what are we to do? Jesus does not give a solution. Indeed, he seems like a brilliant surgeon who withholds the treatment after having diagnosed a patient with a critical illness. Then again, if we look at Jesus the solution to our problem is right there in front of us, staring us in the face, as it were. The remedy to the evil intentions of which Jesus speaks is Jesus himself. If the self-serving desires we harbour in our hearts are what truly make us unclean, then we ought to both pray for a clean heart and imitate the heart of Christ, who in the Gospel of Matthew says, ‘Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart’ (11:29).
On one hand, with regards to prayer, for centuries the Church has prayed at the beginning of Mass saying, ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts…’ and perhaps it is time for us to rediscover this ancient prayer. On the other hand, we ought to strive to imitate the heart of Christ as closely as we can, making it the new centre of our being until all evil intentions are firmly put aside, until we can say with St Paul, ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). Both prayer and imitation Christ’s Heart mean allowing the Heart of our Redeemer to gradually replace our own hearts; allowing that Heart to exchange our self-serving desires for his ever-burning, selfless love.
In our gospel Jesus firmly identifies the source of true ritual uncleanliness with our selfish intentions, and if we think about it he’s pretty much spot-on. But through prayer and the imitation of his Heart we will be able to overcome this defilement, replacing ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, and folly’ (7:22) with a new, divine set of habits - with ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Gal 5:22)