Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"What is essential is invisible to the eye" (Tuesday, Week V in Ordinary Time, Mark 7:1-13)

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they observed that some of his disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands. (For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles and beds.) So the Pharisees and scribes questioned him, “Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts”.

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Never underestimate the power of appearance. It creates an initial and often important impression. And human nature being what it is, the way a person appears or the way a thing is packaged often counts for much. The billion-dollar advertising industry is proof of that. We usually judge things to be pleasant or not, desirable or otherwise, based on how they appear to us—at least initially. And yet, as Jesus reminds us in the gospel reading, appearance only goes so far. It may indeed be important, but in the end, there’s always more to things, and people, than first meets the eye. And it is this, often hidden part of us that really counts.

In his book “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint Exupery puts these words in the mouth of one of his characters: “What is essential is invisible to the eye. It is seen only by the heart”. This perhaps is what the Pharisees often forgot. It is what made their religion, a religion of externals. It was one big show; and they were all hypocritical show-offs. Their piety was all directed outside—for others to see, for people to praise them. It wasn’t meant to give glory to God. It was meant to earn them praise from people.

This type of religiosity, God finds offensive. “It is justice I desire, not sacrifice,” he says in Scripture. What’s the point of external acts of faith, if there’s no substance to it underneath?

It’s what lies in one’s heart that counts. External displays of faith or religion—though not unimportant—must always coincide with what’s going on inside us. A good exterior does not always guarantee a good interior. But when the inside is good, one can more or less be certain that it will manifest itself in outward goodness.

This is what true virtue is—when a good act is a genuine manifestation of a good heart. And most of the time this is invisible. “What is essential is invisible to the eye”. Philosophers sometimes speak of the “anonymity of the truly ethical person”. The most ethical individuals, they say, are those who do good when there’s nobody around to see the good they’re doing. What is true of morals, is true of faith and religiosity as well. The genuinely religious and faith-filled person is one who is true to his faith and religion, even when there’s no one around; in fact, he is true, especially when there’s no one around.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)