“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard that as an injunction to eat healthier and take care of ourselves. And we would be well advised to do such a thing. I know I for one should have thought about that before I ate that pizza the other day. But I thought about that saying this week as I reflected on the readings we’ve just heard. You are what you eat. The externals don’t really matter that much; it’s the stuff that we let into us and then let come out of us that forms the kind of person we will be.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to us all about what’s in our heart. In the first reading, Moses enjoins the Israelites to obey the commandments, and only the commandments. Don’t add to it or subtract from it, he says, and people will know how wise and intelligent you are as a people. Indeed, obeying the law wasn’t for Israel’s sake alone. No, obeying the law was to serve as a witness to other nations that they too might see how good the Lord God is. God is there, Moses tells them, whenever he is called upon; God assures justice in the community and makes them respected in all the world. But this will only happen, he tells them, if they actually obey the commandments they’ve been given, and take them to heart.
Saint James picks up the theme in the New Testament reading today. Be doers of the word, he says, and not hearers only. What good is the law, what good is the covenant, what good is the Gospel if all we do is just passively hear it, letting it go in one ear and out the other? Better not to hear it at all than to make a mockery of it by simply ignoring it. When we hear the word proclaimed, it’s for our instruction, not just our edification. The word and the commandments are gifts to us, which is really just about the same thing that Moses was saying, and we should rejoice to have them.
As usual, in the Gospel, Jesus brings all this to critical mass. Here he has yet another altercation with the scribes and Pharisees. The begin to quiz him about his disciple’s habit of not washing their hands before they eat. Now before all you parents start siding with the Pharisees, they weren’t talking about cleaning dirt off their hands before a meal. They were talking about a ritual custom of washing, not only hands, but also jugs and other things. These rituals probably began as something the priests did before offering sacrifice. Much like the hand washing that is done in the Eucharistic Liturgy before the Eucharistic Prayer. But in the case of the Jews, this practice seems to have become something that ended up obliging everyone, and the Pharisees were keen to see that it was done faithfully by everyone, along with the other 612 laws they were required to practice!
So what Jesus was criticizing here was empty, meaningless ritual. Non-observance of these meaningless things, he says, do not make a person impure. Those demanding that people obey these human laws are themselves disobeying the law of God, Jesus says. So he illustrates the problem by making the point that real impurity comes from a much more fickle source: the human heart. It is not missing mere ritual cleansings that presents the problem. The real problem is not purifying the heart. Because from an impure heart comes all sorts of foul things: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils,” Jesus says, “come from within and they defile.”
The Catechism tells us, “The sixth beatitude proclaims, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ ‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness … There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith.” This, I think, is what Jesus was getting at. If we would be really clean, and not just ritually so, then we would do well to purify our selves from the inside out, and not the other way around. Pure hearts would avoid all the evils Jesus lists, and then some.
This is why I began by quoting, “You are what you eat.” The task before us is that of purifying our hearts, so that we may rid ourselves of the source of all these evil and vile things that can so easily come forth from us. What does that mean? Well, it’s probably different for every person. Maybe some of us need to stop watching so much television. Or spending too much time on the internet. Perhaps some relationships we have are not healthy and need to be ended. Maybe we’ve been paying attention to the wrong advice. Whatever it is that needs to be rooted out, it needs to go.
Then too, we have to put more of the positive stuff into our lives. Perhaps we need to pray more. Or to read the Scriptures or other spiritual books more. Maybe it would be good to spend more time with our families, to pray together, or watch some good television or a movie together, even to have more meals together. I know those things can be hard to do, but they’re never a waste of time or effort.
The point is that we need to do whatever it takes to purify our hearts. We need to root out the sources of evil thoughts and replace them with beautiful thoughts. Unchastity and adultery need to be replaced with faithfulness. Theft and murder with respect for property and above all, life. We need to do away with greed, malice, envy and deceit and replace them with honesty and justice. Root out everything that leads to licentiousness, arrogance and folly and replace them with encouragement and right relationships with others. And above all let there be no more blasphemy, that we may make way for true faith. Every source of vice has to be eliminated in our lives so that we can practice virtue, and become a people marked by purity of heart. This exercise is one that is tied to a promise for us: those who purify their hearts, the beatitude tells us, will truly see God. The Church teaches us that the goal of all of our lives is to become saints, and this, brothers and sisters in Christ, is how we do it.
What Jesus is saying to us is quite simple: we have to clear away the obstructions in our lives so that we can live as authentic disciples. Those of you who came to daily Mass this week may have heard me reflect for a few days on what the Christian disciple looks like. We heard all kinds of instruction on that this week. Today’s Liturgy of the Word brings that all to a crescendo. The Christian disciple looks like one who strives always to live with a pure heart. The Christian disciple watches what he or she takes in, because the Christian disciple knows we are what we eat.