Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Here’s the full audio of Pastor Michael’s sermon from October 29, 2017, reflecting on the sixth Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount:

And here’s a written excerpt, looking at what Jesus meant by “purity in heart”:

Into this world steeped in purity stepped Jesus—our next stop in our journey through the Bible. Jesus saw how a rigid concern for external purity around “clean” foods, “clean” actions, and “clean” people brought exclusion, even injustice.

Jesus wasn’t alone in this. Others, especially the prophet Isaiah, had seen this in their world as well. And together they spoke with a clear voice: “This is not the way of God!”

Nearly everything Jesus said and did pressed into this strong purity culture, pushing against the division and exclusion, prejudice and injustice that accompanied it. Many of the purity laws in the Law of Moses, in fact, have a corresponding story of Jesus pushing against them in some way, breaking down the walls of separation people with power had built using those purity laws.

He touched unclean lepers as he healed them. He shared water with an impure Samaritan woman. He shared God’s power with an unholy Roman centurion. He healed on the sacred Sabbath. He raised a dead girl—an unclean corpse—with a gentle whisper and a loving touch.

In all this, mercy trumped purity, every single time.

And then there was the time Jesus said that God wasn’t really all that concerned about what food we put into our bodies, but rather what words and actions come out of our hearts. It’s a story worth pausing at, as it has a teaching that gets to the bottom of what Jesus means by “purity of the heart.” It’s found in Mark 7.

In the story some of the Pharisees and Scribes have noticed that Jesus’ disciples are eating with unclean hands. Again, this isn’t about hygiene; it’s about religious purity. The Pharisees had championed a view of purity that applied to all Jews not only the regular purity laws but also the additional purity laws for priests—and this included special ceremonial washings before certain events, including sharing a meal.

But Jesus’ disciples weren’t doing this ritual washing before eating, and the Purity Police were indignant. “What?” you can hear them say. “Don’t you care about purity, Jesus? Don’t you want us to see God?”

Jesus responds by focusing first on the way they have elevated their traditions above God’s command (that’s a whole other sermon). But then he focuses on the purity commands themselves. Here’s where we pick up the story:

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile; but the things that come out are what defile them.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, or make one impure, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus [Mark adds for the reader] he declared all foods clean.)

And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles them. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person, they make them impure or unclean.”

Jesus, in other words, teaches that the purity that really matters is a purity of the heart. All those outward, bodily concerns we have, about food and drink and more? Those don’t have anything to do with the real purity God desires. God desires a pure heart.

But this isn’t about some merely inward, private morality any more than it’s about some external bodily functions. These “evil intentions,” Jesus says, come from the heart—but they work their way out into our lives. And all these “evil things” Jesus lists are about how we relate to other people—they are, in fact, “evil” because they cause harm to others or our relationship with them.

In other words, Jesus shifts the idea of “purity” from outward, bodily concerns that only cause division and exclusion, prejudice and injustice, to the inner roots of our harmful sins against each other.

This is the real “impurity.” Our deeply entrenched, damaging attitudes toward others. Our desires gone to excess. Our fears taken root and spreading. Our ego inflated to a distorted caricature of ourselves.

Purity of heart, then, is the opposite of all this. To be “pure in heart” is to have a heart that loves, a heart from which loving attitudes, words, and deeds can grow and bear fruit in our life with others.

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