Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“What's in your heart?”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Jesus constantly dealt with hypocrites, most of whom simply didn’t like that he didn’t praise them or uphold them as the paragon of righteousness; and what’s perhaps most infuriating about them is that they’re willing to go to amazing lengths to try to discredit him, focusing in on whatever minuscule breach of etiquette they can pin on him, or even on his followers, in order to delegitimize his authority or righteousness. 

One of the standout encounters of this sort is found in chapter seven of Mark’s Gospel, when the Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating.  We’ve all gotten used to life with COVID-19, and so perhaps empathize a bit with their complaint, but of course they’re not concerned about external effects eventuated by lackluster hygiene—they’re just mad that the “tradition of the elders” (v5) is being ignored.

I’ve written about this text before in the last few months, focusing somewhat on the good aspects of these traditions, but this time I’d like to pay more attention to Jesus’ response, and apply that standard to us.  He deftly swats down the initial complaint, calling out the hypocrisy, and the fact that tradition is a far lower standard than God’s commandment; but he’s not done there.

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mk 7.14-15)

This would seem like lunacy to his audience of Jewish disciples, because of course their entire system of ritual purity focused on the external, with detailed instructions about how to avoid defilement, and what onerous steps had to be taken in order to be considered “clean” after a defiling event, such as coming into contact with a dead body, becoming infected with various dermatological ailments, eating unclean foods, having a baby, or even simply participating in various required aspects of worship that led to ritual defilement.  Even though God acknowledged that many of these acts weren’t avoidable, there’s a general stigma against even taking the action that would lead to becoming ceremonially unclean, which is particularly easy to see with respect to the dietary code in Leviticus 11, where the terms are “clean” and “unclean” just like the rest, but they’re commanded, “You shall not eat” the unclean foods (e.g. Le 11.8).

Yet, here Jesus says the opposite, even to the point that Mark includes a helpful commentary on his teaching, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mk 7.19).  Of course, this is because of what Paul says in Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Co 2.16-17)

Jesus is explaining to them more fully, at the proper time, what the Law was meant to teach them about holiness—that it is delicate, that it is easily tainted, that it must be carefully guarded and deliberately cultivated; and that our everyday actions in even the most mundane situations put us in danger of defiling ourselves.

In, or Out?

However, those shadows were not the substance, and the substance gives us freedom, while simultaneously applying a more stringent standard on us.

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mk 7.20-23)

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that there is darkness within our hearts, however much we wish it weren’t there, try to eradicate it, or simply pretend it isn’t so.  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Je 17.9).  Our hearts are complicated, more complicated than we ourselves even understand, and within the labyrinth are corners, walls, and even entire hallways that remain hidden in the shadows ruled by the “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ep 6.12).  If left to our own devices, we’d all succumb to that darkness and let it enslave us, while telling ourselves that we are really the ones in charge.

When we repent of sin, as Jesus tells us over and over again that we must do, we are, in a sense, filling another of those dark corners with the light of Christ, exposing their secrets for what they are, and replacing them with truth, love, and God’s glory.  It’s all too easy to pin our eternal fate on a single “come to Jesus” moment, and while there is a clear turning point, demonstrated by the many events of baptism and conversion preserved and explained for us in the book of Acts, we must not stop there.  This is to be a lifelong process of conforming more and more closely the image of God’s Son (Ro 8.29), constantly examining and testing ourselves (2Co 13.5), never sitting back in satisfaction with our own cleanness.  “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Pr 4.23).

Jeremy Nettles