Getting At the Heart (of the) Problem

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – September 2, 2018

Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; Psalm 15:2-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Every time I hear a Gospel that begins with, “The scribes and the pharisees,” I just feel kind of bad. Because no matter what they say, the scribes and the pharisees never seem to get it right. And usually they have it coming to them: they lay a trap for Jesus and he makes them look foolish. But today, they simply ask, “Why don’t your disciples follow the simple traditions of our elders, but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?” I mean, most of you parents probably tell your kids to wash their hands before eating; it seems like common sense. But right away, Jesus corrects them: “It’s not the food you eat or anything from outside of you that causes uncleanness and sin, no. It’s not an exterior problem, it’s an interior problem. It’s a problem with the heart; it’s a problem from the very core of your being.”

By “heart,” Jesus doesn’t mean our literal heart or being in our feelings; what Jesus means is what Sacred Scripture means by the heart. The heart is the depths of a person, their innermost core of thought and feeling and will; this is where the Lord is either accepted or rejected. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,” he means “seeing” with the heart, he is talking about experiencing the love and mercy of God in the very depths of our being.

And so in our Gospel, once again, the scribes and the pharisees show how ignorant they are. They think that if they follow a bunch of rules that keep themselves physically clean, they will not sin as much and will not be spiritually unclean. They think that if they follow all of these rules, their hearts will change as well. They are so focused on the externals, they have forgotten that the heart must come first. Sure, they can follow the rules all they want! But it’s just like trying to plant wheat on concrete: you can throw the seed on the concrete, but it isn’t going to grow.

And like the scribes and pharisees, we all fall into this too. Myself most of all! Think about how easy it is for each of us to do this! How many times do we come to mass because we have to, or we go to confession because we have to, or we tithe because we have to, or we pray because we have to? because those are the rules? And don’t hear what I’m not saying: those things are all good things! But are our hearts in them?

When you go to mass, the priest says, “Lift up your hearts,” and you respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” But are we really raising our hearts to the Lord? When we go to confession, are we exposing our hearts to the Lord and asking him to heal them and change them, or are we just trying to be ritually clean? When we tithe, is it a really an offering from the heart, or just something we have to do? In prayer, do we share with the Lord what is truly on our heart, or do we just say some words? In all of this, the danger is that when we do things just to keep up appearances, just to follow rules and the laws—when we never really involve the heart, we can begin to question everything and ask, “Why do this at all?”

But Jesus doesn’t ask that. What Jesus asks is, “Do you still not understand?” Jesus, in trying to help us understand, shows that he is fulfilling exactly what the prophets had said before: “I have not come to teach you a new and improved set of laws, I haven’t come to show you the rules that will get you to heaven. I have come to give you new hearts, to renew your hearts that are stone and to make them hearts of flesh, hearts that are truly human. It is with this new heart, this fleshy, human heart that you will be able to be drawn close to the Lord, to truly follow his commands” (c.f., Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26). This is the key! But it’s also the difficult part for us.

And it’s difficult because of what it involves: it involves putting our heart in a vulnerable position, in a position where it can be wounded. What do I mean? Well, think about that first person that ever broke your heart. You were probably young, and you fell in love. But then things fell apart, they failed you, and you were heartbroken. You vowed never to let someone do that again. And so you started to harden your heart, to put up walls and barriers to prevent someone from hurting you again. Or think about when you told a friend a secret, a really big secret, but then they betrayed your trust and told someone else. And so you vowed never to let someone do that again, and started to build more walls.

This is why our relationship with the Lord can be so difficult: because in order to let the Lord truly move us, in order to develop that true, deep, and abiding relationship with the Lord, we have to be willing to put our heart in a position to be wounded. Yet time and time again throughout our lives, we have experienced the need for walls to protect our heart. Or in some cases, we just rip-out our heart altogether, and just give up on it entirely.

But with the Lord, this is not the case. Because he so loved the world and so desired our hearts, he first put himself in a position to be wounded: God became man. And what happened? His own people put him to death, his closest companions abandoned and betrayed and denied him. And when he was on the cross, his side was pierced, his literal heart was pierced. But look! Do you not understand? It is in this way that the New and Everlasting Covenant was established; in putting himself in a position to be wounded, the greatest good was brought about.

When we finally open our hearts—when we take down the walls, when we allow the Lord to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh, when we become vulnerable and put our heart in a position where it may be wounded—when we open our hearts we also open ourselves to the possibility of  “seeing God,” of experiencing his love and mercy in the very depths of our being, of experiencing the gladness he offers. It is scary; it takes courage. But most of all it takes His presence. We don’t open our heart when no one is around. No, we open our heart when there is that person in front of us to whom we want to open our heart. In order to open our heart to Jesus Christ, we need his presence in front of us. What a gift that at each and ever mass he comes to us in his body, blood, soul, and divinity. What a gift that He is present to us even now, begging for our hearts, as our hearts—as the depths of our being—beg for Him.

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