“The heart of the matter,” is an expression we often hear to express the centrality of a situation, message or idea. In ancient Judaism the “heart” was used symbolically as the center of the person. It represents not so much an organ of the body but the seat of a person’s identity. Jesus uses this term in today’s Gospel passage from St. Mark when he quotes Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus’ remarks come in answer to the question raised by the Pharisees: “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” St. Mark introduces the scene reminding the reader that the Pharisees keep the purification traditions of the law with particular attention. Being part of the law they observe it with care. Why then would Jesus be upset with their question/observation about his disciples who were also Jews – and thus expected to follow the law?
Jesus’ concern is that the Pharisees who He addresses are so concerned with the externals of the law that they miss the heart of the law which Jesus in another passage summarizes quoting Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your whole heart, with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) While attention to the purification laws is not a bad thing; if it prevents one from following the greater commandment then it hinders rather than helps one follow the law. In other words, Jesus concern is that the purification rituals became empty because they were not flowing from the heart of the person – the actions were not following from a love of God. So it is not so much a teaching of the law that Jesus is criticizing but the relationship that underlies the law.
The importance of the law and commands of the Lord are evident in the First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. Here Moses recounts the giving of the law and calls the people to observe them for they come from God. Stressing the importance of the law he says “you shall not add to what I command you or subtract from it.”
Two further points of importance from this passage. First, wisdom is seen in relationship to following the law. Moses says that in observing the law other nations will see Israel as wise. Wisdom, the ability to make good, just and right decisions, is a gift from the Lord. The law coming from God is the basis of making wise decisions. Hence the person who follows God’s way will make the best decisions. Second, the relationship between the Lord and His people is close. He desires to be close to his people. He desires His people to be in a righteous relationship with Him hence he gives them the law. The closeness of this relationship is seen in obedience to the law. Yet the law, if superficially observed, does not give life. We learn in the Gospel that Jesus is the word that gives life. It is through Him that the “law” of the Lord becomes “written in our hearts.”
The Letter of St. James exhorts us: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” The law of the Lord is written in our hearts through the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. The “word” of the Lord is thus present to us always. At the core of our being God is present. Recognizing the Lord with humility, we are moved to live according to the will of God. The fruit of this living is love.
St. James reminds us that when our worship is “pure and undefiled” it leads to care for the most needy in our midst (in biblical terms the “widows and orphans”) and to be “unstained” by the world. Care for the poor is an expression of mercy – hence it is Godlike. St. John Chrysostom notes, “We can become more like God if we are merciful and compassionate.”
If we do not do these things, we have nothing at all to our credit. God does not say that if we fast we shall be like Him. Rather He wants us to be merciful, as He Himself is. “I desire mercy,” God says, “and not sacrifice.” Remaining “unstained” by the world refers to keeping worldly or external concerns in their proper place. Those whose priorities are externals, material gains or worldly success are “stained” by the world because “worldly” concerns have become dominant in their lives. Life in, with and through Christ offers so much more; hence the exhortation.
Returning to the Gospel, Jesus stresses the need for a wholesome interior life rather than a superficial observance of the law. He notes that what defiles comes from within, from the heart: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” Our relationship with the Lord flows from the heart. We have been transformed through His grace dwelling within us.
The love of God, which is so extraordinary, permeates to the very core of our being. Recognizing the divine presence within us leads us to love like God loves. Purification does not lie in external washings or actions but in the interior transformation of the heart.