A heart of flesh
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospitals, visiting parishioners. Everywhere you look now, there are antibacterial gel dispensers, and people are using them: before going into patients’ rooms so that they won’t transmit anything infectious; before pushing buttons on the elevator; and on the way out the exit. I’ve known patients who, at the hospital, have picked up staph infections and other nasty things that are much worse than whatever they went in with. So even though I use the dispensers, I have been known to push open doors with my elbows.
So then I hear the gospel for today, and think, what’s Jesus’ problem? It seems to me that the ancient Jews had it figured out pretty well. 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.
Again, what’s the problem? Why does Jesus bristle when the Pharisees question the disciples for eating with defiled - that is, dirty - hands?
Well, as we know, Jesus wasn’t reacting like some annoyed 8-year-old whose parent nags him to wash his hands before dinner. He knew what was in these Pharisees’ minds. They assumed that if they observed all of God’s rules, they’d automatically be right with God. And even worse, if they could spot others who didn’t observe the rules, they’d have the delicious pleasure of knowing - and pointing out to them - that they were automatically not right with God.
1st century Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have made this mistake, of course. Some Roman Catholics believe that the only thing you to need worry about is obeying the rules: no birth control, no divorce and remarriage, Mass every Sunday, fish on Fridays during Lent - all lined up like a neat little guidebook to salvation. Or consider the kind of evangelical who says that all you have to do is accept the right ideas about Jesus and sin and the cross, and say the right prayer that follows. Abracadabra! The doors of heaven open.
Both offer easy, external means for measuring who is and who is not right with God. This is the sort of nonsense that Jesus was annoyed with.
For Jesus knew that what matters is not right behavior or belief, but the condition of one’s heart. As he said, There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come, and they defile a person.
Neither religious observance nor orthodoxy are a shortcut to goodness. Instead, when our heart becomes truly attuned to God, good will naturally flow. So it’s not that behavior doesn’t matter. It’s that behavior, whether good or evil, reflects the true condition of the heart. You will know the tree by the kind of fruit it produces.
There are plenty of Roman Catholics and evangelicals who have always understood this, of course. And Jesus was not by any means the first to get it. In today’s gospel he quoted Isaiah to the Pharisees, written 800 years before: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. So in effect, today Jesus was saying to the Jewish leaders, You should know better! Look at what our faith tradition really teaches.
People sometimes talk to me about how they want to deepen their faith, to change their consciousness, in fact. As we talk about what that means for them, the conversation can go in a variety of directions. Some feel a lot of stress and want peace of mind. Some recall times when they felt connected to God, and want to expand on that. Others know that they aren’t at their best; they’re out of sorts, perpetuating behavior that is unhealthy, being unkind to others - they’re not who they want to be.
What to do? A book that will point the way, perhaps. A retreat, or an earnest commitment to God that they might muster up. In our conversation, we slowly circle the real issue, the heart - like a dog turning around its bed several times before lying down. When they settle down, they might see that they’re being asked to do something much more mysterious than reading a book or making resolves. And that is to let God in.
And so I ask, “Do you pray?” After all, if you want to know God, just like wanting to know another person, direct and regular communication might be a good idea. So they might begin to set aside a daily time to reflect on a reading, to meditate, to gaze at the sky, sometimes speaking, sometimes listening, and at all times, holding in the heart an intention to connect.
But it’s not all up to us. We don’t make the connection happen all by ourselves, any more than we do with another person. Prayer is a two-way relationship. Yes, God’s part in this relationship is different from ours - subtle, unknowable, hidden. But this much is clear from everything our faith tradition teaches: God has an intention, too, to connect with us.
When the two intentions meet, something happens. We are no longer over here, wanting a relationship with God over there. We are together, intertwined, moving in the same direction, helping each other.
Relationships take time and patience. Cultivating the habit of desire for God, we open our hearts and wait. Knowing we can’t make it happen by ourselves alone, we are humble, powerless. Whether our prayer is silent or verbal, whether we do it sitting down or in the midst of activity, there is a waiting in humility for the response of grace.
Letting God in also takes persistence and effort, and the courage to look at the ways we set up roadblocks to God. Many of us tend towards laziness, if we’re not under pressure.
We easily give away time to things that seem more urgent, but, in fact, are less important.
Or we may be ambivalent: on the one hand, we like our distractions and habitual way of going through the day on automatic pilot; but on the other hand, we feel drawn towards a more awakened life. What about holding on to resentment that things aren’t as we wish?
Our roadblocks won’t go away unless we pay some attention to them, and there are consequences to either paying attention or not doing so. As the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas says, What you bring forth from within you will save you. But what you do not bring forth from within you will destroy you. The roadblocks won’t go away unless we pay some attention to them, and there are consequences to either paying attention or not doing so. As the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas says, What you bring forth from within you will save you. But what you do not bring forth from within you will destroy you.
The monk Thomas Merton wrote that the spiritual life consists not of a secret and infallible method for attaining to esoteric experiences, but in [learning] how to recognize God’s grace and will, how to be humble and patient, how to develop insight into our own difficulties, and how to remove the main obstacles keeping us from becoming [people] of prayer...in the spiritual life there are no tricks or shortcuts.
Over time, with intention, effort, self-examination, and above all, the working of God’s grace, our heart changes in this relationship. As God said through the prophet Ezekiel, A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
And then, out of God’s own heart of flesh within us, we are transformed from the inside out.
It becomes more natural to be awake and alive in this wondrous world, and to to live not only for ourselves, but for the love of all. This is, more than anything, what Jesus wished for the Pharisees, and what God wishes for every one of us.