Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks

"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you." But he answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came here from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here."

- Matthew 12:33-42

In yesterday's reading, the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub. Jesus responded with a statement that condemned blasphemy against the Spirit - saying that all manner of words against the Son of Man would be forgiven, but not against the Holy Spirit. Today, Jesus' dialogue continues with scribes and Pharisees.

"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment." My study bible has the following note on these verses: "Jesus pronounces a severe judgment against the blasphemers of the Spirit. As the tree is revealed by its fruit, a human being is known by his works. He will do according to the kind of person he is. The blasphemers are a brood of vipers (v. 34; see 3:7; 23:33) because of their evil works and malice. Their heritage is of no value to them; they bear no fruit appropriate to a chosen people. The heart (v. 35) in Scripture refers to the center of consciousness, the seat of the intellect and the will, the source from which the whole of spiritual life proceeds. When grace permeates the heart, it masters the body and guides all actions and thoughts. When malice and evil capture the heart, a person becomes full of darkness and spiritual confusion." Jesus adds, "For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." This reminds me of the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus expands upon the statute against murder. (See You shall not murder.) In that part of the Sermon, Jesus teaches that words can cause harm and hurt - they can be a form of murder, a careless expression that is as much in the spirit of murder as the act itself. Our words against others can incite violence, and diminish others. In our passage today, Jesus emphasizes the importance of words and our speech. Not only do they make an impact, but they also convey responsibility upon us for what exactly we utter. More than that, they convey what is in the heart.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you." My study bible notes, "In their request for a sign, some spectacular display, the scribes and Pharisees show their wickedness. After so many miracles, they now ask Jesus for such a sign? But Jesus will not cater to their hard-heartedness. His sign will be his Passion and Resurrection from the dead." As Jesus' act of healing by exorcism - returning sight and speech to one who was blind and mute - is both a messianic sign and was labeled as sorcery by the Pharisees (see yesterday's reading), they now ask him for a sign. This is to prove his status as Messiah - or, as he refers to himself, the Son of Man.

But he answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." A note here reads: "Adulterous generation echoes the analogy of the prophets for the infidelity of Israel (Jer. 2:1-3, 20-25, 32, 33; 3:1-5; Hos. 2:2-13)." Christ is the bridegroom; he seeks his bride. This is what the Church will come to be called, the bride of Christ. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Israel is called the bride of the Anointed One (Christ or Messiah). It is in this context that Jesus pronounces his words here.

"The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came here from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here." With the examples of the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South, Jesus returns to his theme about witnessing the holy - and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Both the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South had hearts that were not hardened, but were capable of grasping and understanding spiritual truth and reality before them. Both had their minds open to wisdom. But the Pharisees fail in this context; and Jesus says that they will be judged by the acts of the others, who heard and understood. The Pharisees, he's saying, are incapable of repentance; that is, "change of mind" or metanoia in the Greek. They don't want to change. They are not willing to hear. They do not wish to open their spiritual eyes and ears and be healed. When Jesus taught his disciples why he preached using parables, he said the following about those who could not grasp spiritual truth: "And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: 'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.' " In the Pharisees and scribes, we have a greater degree of hard-heartedness. Not only are they the ones who understand the scriptures, but they are also witness to the acts of the Holy Spirit in their presence, which they, having been so prepared, should be able to receive and understand.

So, we conclude again, as in yesterday's reading, that the importance of our choices is reflected here. We are responsible for what we say about others, what we are quick to condemn. We are responsible for our own judgment. And in that judgment, we must be wary of our own hard-heartedness. We must look for what we fail to grasp - because in that failure we may be rendering a judgment upon ourselves. This is a text that speaks to us of openness, of our eyes wide open to the power of holiness - which is ever-creative and appears in new forms all the time. In another reading which was part of Jesus' teaching of the parable of the Sower (in the gospel of Mark), I mentioned what I heard in a sermon given by Deacon Candice Corrigan. Candice preached that Lent was a time for "making room" for God. Here, the limitations of hard-heartedness make it clear that there is no room for the holy. There is no room for eyes to be opened or ears to hear what they cannot hear. There is no room for change, for repentance (metanoia) or "change of mind." What do you make room for in your life? How will you be like the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South, and make room for wisdom - perhaps in a new and startling form - when you hear it?