Thursday, July 30, 2009

The human heart

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

- Mark 7:1-23

This is an interesting passage, because Jesus is talking about human traditions that obscure or are used to override the commandments of God. The tradition of the elders, to which Jesus refers in vs. 3, is an oral tradition handed down by the scribes and the Pharisees. It is an interpretation of Mosaic Law to which they clung as if it were equally authoritative. So, according to this tradition of the elders, washing oneself by an outward ritual of purification was the way to purify oneself from contact with Gentiles or sinners. There was also included in this tradition of the elders the idea that money or possessions could be given over to God, reserved for God, so to speak, through a promise: this was called "Corban." In this way, property and possessions could continue to be used, and one's parents or other relations were not allowed to share in them. So, in this sense, these traditions - raised up as equal to the written Laws of Moses - could be used to override the Mosaic command of "honor thy father and mother." My study bible points out that the Mosaic command to honor father and mother is the first command that deals with human relationships - so, in this sense, the tradition is used in order to disrupt human relatedness. The implication is that right relatedness to others is a core value of spiritual law; if human tradition obscures law that is understood to be a part of the wisdom of God, then it is overriding the true spirit in which the law is to be given, and tradition upheld. This does nothing to bring people closer to God.

Furthermore, Jesus points out something of essential importance here, and that is our own awareness of our weaknesses. He says on the one hand that all the things God has made are good: in essence the ritual cleansing of foods has nothing to do with what truly defiles us. The over-emphasis on the physical purification is really not compatible with an understanding of what sin is and where it comes from. We run the risk of such "contamination" from our own hearts. We freely choose to do evil or good, to harbor greed or selfishness or envy or the myriad of other things that truly "pollute" us spiritually. These are the things which we choose to guide ourselves in our own hearts - whatever it is that we choose to make our treasure, so to speak. So, the Christian notion of sin or defilement really has to do with what it is that we put our faith into, what we choose to keep as our own possession of the heart, because there we are the keepers of whatever "law" we choose.

So, from this passage we are given some significant teachings about Christian spirituality. Our "defilement" does not come from the things we do on the outside, but from what we guard as our treasure on the inside. This doesn't mean that one doesn't take care of physical health - but that this is not a substitute for spiritually understanding what it is that makes one a "good" or "bad" person in spiritual terms. An outward appearance may simply mask hidden greed or other values that defy the true nature of the spirituality that comes from the true wisdom of grace. Right relatedness is one of the teachings we understand to be a gift of God. Should I steal from my relatives and promise it to the church? Would this make me a sainted or holy person? No, it is a guarding of the heart that is essential that is taught here: an emphasis on the internal reality of the person. This is one reason to turn to God in prayer - an acknowledgment of the fallibility of our human person, an understanding that we turn over whatever we are to grace. Repentance is the necessary willingness to change, to "cleanse the inside of the cup." It is the practice of humility before God, in this primary form of relatedness, that establishes our willingness and acknowledgment of what it is to accept Jesus' notion of cleanliness and true spirituality expressed here. We establish a relatedness in prayer in order to create a deeper awareness within ourselves of what our choices are; so that we do not remain unconscious of what it is that is in our hearts.

All tradition is useful when properly practiced with this understanding in mind. It is when tradition or human practices meant to uphold true spiritual or religious values become instruments of obscuring this understanding of spirituality that they do harm. If we do not practice whatever tradition we follow - be it forms of charity or good works, religious devotional practices, it doesn't matter what we're talking about - with this understanding of the internal dynamic of personal spiritual choice, this notion of guarding of the heart and humility before God, an awareness of how we are constructed exactly as beings capable of choosing for evil or good, then we may be blinding ourselves to what we do. Right-relatedness in this sense means first being "right-related" to God, establishing the understanding that this comes from the place of our hearts, and not the outward appearance we make to the world.

I see this teaching as establishing the "great commandment" first: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength." And the second: "Love your neighbor as yourself." It examines the primacy of choice that is within us, the heart as the center of where it is that we choose for good or evil. When we practice spirituality, it is with the understanding that we seek in our hearts to establish a right-relatedness first to God, to grace, in order to choose wisely - because in our heart is where we keep our treasure, for "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Repeatedly, Jesus asks us to examine our inner lives. He withdraws into solitude for prayer himself at regular intervals, he always asks for guidance himself even as he teaches and establishes himself as a holy person in the eyes of his fellows, those he helps and teaches. The necessary humility to understand our own fallibility is the first necessity on this road of spiritual choices. What is your treasure?

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