Proper 17 · Mark 7:14-23 · August 30, 2009
By Travis J. Scholl
If last week’s Gospel reading dealt with things external (defiled hands), this week deals with things internal (an unclean heart), part two in Jesus’ teaching on what makes things (and people) clean and unclean.
The audience has changed: “Then he called the crowd again and said to them …” (v. 14, emphasis mine). Jesus is turning towards those who are closer to his own heart. The stern critique he gave to the religious leaders is now distilled into a simple principle: “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (v. 15). Mark calls it, literally, a parable, although it reads more like a proverb.
Perhaps that is part of the disciples’ confusion. When they question him about this whole affair, Jesus has “left the crowd and entered the house” (v. 17). Jesus then gives a basic lesson in gastroenterology: what goes into a person bypasses the heart, into the stomach, flushed out the intestines, into the sewer (v. 19). But then the lesson becomes psychosomatic: what defiles is a matter of the heart, and only the heart is a completely internal organ. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …” (v. 21). The long list that follows holds a mirror up to us all, since it is hard to read it and not feel implicated somewhere along the line. There’s enough evil to go around to every human heart and then some.
Eugene Peterson, in his popular biblical paraphrase The Message, utilizes some keen language to sum up this list: “all these are vomit from your heart. There is the source of your pollution.” Pollution. We tend to think of pollution as something out there, that we breathe in. But, in matters of the heart, pollution is something produced by the internal combustion of evil. Our sin—mine and yours—pollutes the world.
And in this sense, we have a truly “green” Savior. His way of dealing with the pollution of sin and evil is not to cap its emissions, but to cut it off at its source. To paraphrase the psalmist, Jesus is in the business of creating clean hearts (Ps 51:10). Which ultimately is a call to repentance: “Rend your heart and not your clothes,” cries the prophet. “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…” (Joel 2:13). That cleansing work is completed by the work of the cross, of course, the ultimate purging of the world’s pollution. But Jesus’ whole life and ministry—every single day of it— was taken up in binding up dirty and broken hearts. (Look no further than next week’s Gospel for two vivid examples.)
The same goes for every single day of his resurrected life. Every time sins are forgiven, a dirty heart is created clean. And the beautiful thing is this: a clean heart pumps out clean energy. In Galatians 5, Paul’s list of “works of the flesh” echoes Mark’s. But then Paul contrasts it with what comes from a clean heart: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-25).
A clean heart led by the Spirit: I can’t think of a better energy policy for the people of God in this “green” season of Pentecost.