Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Reflections on Mark 7:14-23)

“Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him; rather it is the things that come out from within that render him unclean.”

The Jewish faith has always had a long list of things that are unclean or make a person unclean. Certain foods, actions, and things render persons unclean and unworthy. These teachings were such an important part of Jewish law that in the book of Macabbees, an entire Jewish family of mother and seven sons, chose to be martyred than defile themselves by eating food offered to idols. (II Mac. 7:1-42)

In one stroke, however, Jesus changes this all-important Jewish idea and says that nothing that comes from the outside can make a person unclean. Rather it is what comes out of an individual that can render him unclean.

And he names them in the Gospel: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, and folly”. These alone, Jesus says, can defile a person, because they come from within, they come from the heart.

In another part of Scripture, he says, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34) And so a Christian would do well to guard that what he or she does on the outside is consistent with who and what he is on the inside. For it is the single most important difference of Christianity from other religions that while other religions concern themselves a great deal with externals, Christianity holds that what is inside a person is what matters more.

Externals are for people to see. What lies within, however, what lies in the depths of the human heart and soul, that is for God alone to know and judge. And what we do in the secret of our hearts is much more valuable to Him than what others see us doing. Purity of heart and soul cannot but issue forth in external words and deeds that are consistent with such integrity of one’s ‘inner reality’.

And yet, there is the ‘flipside’ to this reality which we must not overlook, namely, that just as goodness can come from the heart, evil can come from it as well. If it is what’s on the inside that purifies; it is likewise the interior, i.e. what is from within, that can defile. Such is the “terrible chemistry” of a sinful heart which, as the prophet Jeremiah says, can be "deceitful above all things," and can distill poison that ruins life. “It is what comes out of a man”, as Jesus says, “that can render him unclean”.

The ancient Greek philosophers taught that “a good tongue is the clearest mark not only of a good upbringing, but of a moral life”. In fact, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius both argued that prudent and conscientious speech is one of the keystones to an authentic program of spiritual growth, counseling those who would listen against engaging in discussion about other people.

One of my favorite readings for Night Prayer has always been these words of admonition from Saint Paul: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; Do not give the devil the chance to work on you....No foul language should come out of your mouths, speak only those things that are needed for building up”. (Eph. 4:26-27,29)

They’ve always reminded me of what my dad used to tell us when we were kids: “If you guys can’t say anything good to or about one another, better not say anything at all”. He didn’t mean, of course, that we couldn’t criticize each other when this was necessary, but even then he was quick to remind us that meanness was completely unnecessary and was in fact, counter-productive.

“In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”, counsels Saint Augustine. In all things, charity.

Finally, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who was murdered by the Nazis a few weeks before Germany was liberated by the Allies, used to constantly advise his students in seminary that they speak about people only when they’re around. And it didn’t matter if what were to be spoken are words of praise; his advice was still to avoid speaking of anyone—whether to praise or criticize them—whenever they weren’t around. “Wait till they’re present, then say what you must”.

Excellent words of advice for everyone, then and now.

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