by Laurie Gudim
Our Gospel reading for today is deceptively straight forward. Nothing that goes into a body can defile it. Only what comes out defiles. At first sight this seems a simple pronouncement against the way dietary laws were practiced in Jesus’ culture. Rather than making the adherence to an intricate system of rules the standard for being clean and able to worship God, Jesus says the focus ought to be on the secret intentions of the heart.
But if we go beyond our natural inclination to turn up our noses at the Jewish religious practices of Jesus’ time – ones in which Jesus himself would have been deeply immersed – we are in for a nasty surprise. Jesus is not telling us that one kind of religious practice is better than others. He is saying that any practice, no matter how praiseworthy, falls short of making us right before God. No ritual, no good work, no behavior will do it. Neither righteous acts nor sinful ones are the standards by which to judge defilement. Only the hidden longings of the heart count.
Anyone who is honest with themselves knows that this is a terrifying prospect. I can tell you for sure that my secret thoughts and intentions run the gambit. I often semi-consciously long for horrible things. I’m classist and racist, self-focused and mean-spirited. The closer my self-examination, the more aware I become that I’m pretty ugly inside – and therefore, by Jesus’ standards, pretty defiled.
But I have learned that there is often a core yearning at the root of many such negative impulses, a longing for myself – myself as I really am – the self that God sees and loves. One obvious example is how my envy of another person can be motivated by needing, myself, to live into something my soul perceives they embody. Emulating them won’t satisfy this longing, but becoming more profoundly who God knows me to be will.
Self-examination therefore must be coupled with prayer, with asking God to help me find my true longings, my authentic nature, in the midst of all the nattering and tugging of the secret voices within me. I pray that the defilement caused by what is unconscious and not reconciled within me be cleansed by the light of love and understanding of deeper motivations. This light is of Christ, who loves me, and who himself dwells within my heart.
Laurie Gudim works is a religious iconographer and writer in Fort Collins, Colorado. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.She has recently published her novel, Loving the Six-Toed Jesus, available from Amazon.