What enters and defiles the heart?

This is a translation of the Spanish homily that I preached on this Sunday.
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 2, 2012
Deut 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 15; James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

After five weeks in the Gospel of John, our Gospel reading today comes from the Gospel according to Mark. And we hear that, shortly after our Lord Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000, he is now involved in an argument with the Pharisees and the scribes about some questions of ritual purity: about the customary washing of hands, and also the ritual food laws.

And we notice that St. Mark stops to explain to his readers, in the Greek and Roman world, just what these Jewish customs were. And we need that explanation too—because the motivation for this washing was not hygienic, or maintaining physical cleanliness so as not to spread disease. Rather, it was for ritual purity, for keeping oneself approved and undefiled in the sight of God. And our Lord Jesus was correct in saying, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” For although ritual hand washing is mentioned very briefly in the Law of Moses (cf. Lev. 15:11), it is clear that “the tradition of the elders” had gone far beyond that—and, some 200 years later, the oral traditions recorded in the Mishnah devote a whole section to discussing ritual hand washing. And this is what the Pharisees and the scribes use to challenge Jesus here: “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?”

But our Lord Jesus refocuses the conversation—away from the question of one’s hands, and instead to the question of one’s heart. He does change the ritual purity laws. But, in doing so, he does not make the moral demands easier, but harder. It is just as in the Sermon on the Mount, where he penetrates from outward actions to inward thoughts and attitudes and desires—when he says that it is not enough just not to murder, if we are filled with anger and hatred (Matt 5:21-22); it is not enough to refrain from committing adultery, if we are filled with lust (5:27-28). Rather, our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees: we must be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. (5:20, 48) The heart is of primary importance.

But, of course, all of this only really applies to the Jewish people of the 1st century, right? We don’t have a problem with focusing on what is external and physical, and ignoring what is internal, what fills our heart and mind and soul. We wouldn’t do that!

Or would we? The Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt (“Is Food the New Sex?”) has observed that, over the past 50 or 60 years, we have seen in this country, in this culture, that attitudes toward food and attitudes toward sex have become reversed. Not so many decades ago, she writes, people here had personal preferences about food—they knew what they liked and didn’t like—but they didn’t see these as moral laws to impose on others and require of them; whereas they did agree that there were moral laws concerning sexual activity and marriage and having children, and that everyone was expected to follow these. In contrast, today, many view sexual activity as an area largely free of moral rules but rather involving only personal preferences. But attitudes toward food have become full of demanding laws:

  • how much you should eat or not eat;
  • what kinds of foods you must eat, what kinds you must not;
  • how and when you must prepare the food;
  • how and where the food must be grown or raised;
  • and all of this with a moral fervor that no longer applies to human sexuality.

It seems that our Lord’s words apply very well to the U.S. today. For all of our differences from 1st century Jewish people in the Holy Land, we too need to hear Jesus Christ’s words clearly and understand: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

And it is a sentence omitted from today’s reading that helps to focus us. For he explained to his disciples: “everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine.” (7:18-19) Now, this might seem like an odd expression, but it makes perfect sense when we consider his focus upon the heart: upon our inner thoughts and desires and attitudes. The food we eat—whether it is local or grass-fed or organic or processed or fattening—enters the stomach and then moves on through. It does not enter the heart. What enters the heart?

Evil actions come from evil thoughts in the heart, and our Lord gives a list of them. All these evils come from within. But what enters the heart?

St. James writes, in our second reading: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” What enters the heart?

What enters the heart comes in first through our senses—especially sight and hearing. That can mean the words and example of other people—family, friends, coworkers, fellow students, strangers. But, in this media age, perhaps what enters the heart is especially the media we consume:

  • what we read;
  • what we look at;
  • what we watch;
  • what we listen to;
  • what we play.

And if we think it is important to be careful what we eat—which enters the stomach and passes out—how much more important it is to be careful what media we consume with our eyes and ears, for that does enter the heart. How much more important it is to guard our heart unstained.

And let me focus in on one very important phenomenon that is widely accessible in today’s Internet-enabled world: the availability of pornography. The Catechism tells us (2354) the pornography is “a grave offense”—it is a mortal sin, if it is done with full freedom and full knowledge. For “pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties”—something that is almost impossible without technology, yet very easy with it; something that is contrary to pure, true love and contrary to human dignity, including the dignity of the one who views it; something that poisons and stains and corrupts the heart.

As pornography becomes all the more common, it is all the more important that each of us guard our hearts against it. If you have been taking this poison into your heart, you must stop now; you must remove it from your life, by the roots; you must change your habits to protect yourself against it.

And if you think, unconsciously, that you are not worth protecting; that you are not precious; that you are not meant to be treated gently and with care; you are! Our Lord does love you that much—and he wants you to be unstained, undefiled, pure and beautiful. And the good news is that he will forgive you, when you repent of your sins in the sacrament of confession—and that, in time, he can cleanse and purify you. He can make you pure and beautiful again.

What enters the heart? Above all, our Lord Jesus can enter your heart—if you will receive him.

In the words of St. James: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”

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