Mark – Chapter 7
Jesus said, “Nothing you eat can defile you.” It’s hard to realize today just how revolutionary, how outrageous such a statement was for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Among the greatest of all the Jewish martyrs were those who were killed rather than eat pork and other forbidden foods. The Second Book of Maccabees tells of how, shortly before the revolt of Judas Maccabeus, the ruler Antiochus IV arrested a Jewish mother and her seven sons and tried to make them eat pork. When they refused, he tortured and killed her sons one by one, before her very eyes. The last of her sons makes a speech and declares that his brothers are dead “under God’s covenant of everlasting life.”
But here, Jesus seems to be undermining the sacredness of the covenant with God when he says that nothing you eat can defile you, whether it’s pork or anything else. “For,” he says, “it is not what goes into a man which defiles him, but what comes out of him.”
For Jesus, the thing which can ruin a person’s life is not what he eats, or takes in, but what is already in the human heart. The human heart can distil poisons which can ruin a life. And the root of the evil in the heart are our thoughts – logismoi. When our thoughts are evil, or selfish, or proud, or slanderous, or envious, they can be every bit as evil and destructive to a person’s soul as theft, murder, or adultery.
Why are our thoughts so powerful, and so capable of corrupting and destroying our very souls? For Jesus, our evil thoughts can be insidious, damaging and corrosive – our envy, our pride, our anger, above all because we can be very adept at hiding them – and even hiding them from ourselves.
We can disguise them, so that behind a facade of goodness and kindness, we can all the time be eaten up by anger, envy and pride. No wonder Jesus was so hostile to hypocrisy: it is the great enemy of the truth. And it is truth, it seems to me, truth, and the search for truth within ourselves, which lies at the very heart of authentic Christian spirituality.
To get at that truth – my truth, your truth, is not easy. We are so prone to illusions about ourselves, so unwilling sometimes to face up to the truth about who we truly are, and prefer to hide behind facades and masks. The sheer intractability of the task, of bringing our real selves into the light of Christ, led our predecessors as religious, into the deserts of Egypt – where stripped of illusion, standing with their hearts naked before God, they could begin to face the truth about themselves, and to begin the task of spiritual transformation.
As we approach the season of Lent, we are challenged to go into the desert ourselves, whatever that may mean for us. It may be a call to simply say no to those continual thoughts, those logismoi, which seem to crowd our minds – a call to still them, to carve out a time for deeper prayer and reflection. In her book, “The Coming of God,” Maria Boulding, a Benedictine nun, writes, “In prayer, we are led into the desert, and there, away from the masks and the camouflages, we have to stand in the truth. Prayer is very humbling, for you have nothing to shield you from the truth, as you stand there before God, day after day, in your naked poverty.”
And so now, in our nakedness, in our poverty, we come to this Eucharist, just as we are, standing before the God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid. Ask God for the gift of clarity and honesty, that you may recognize and name those thoughts which have the power to lead you astray, to pull you down. Ask God for the strength to say no to those thoughts. Replace them with other thoughts, such as those commended by St. Paul in these beautiful words from Philippians:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, think about these things.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:8)
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