Fr. Charles Irvin
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-45,21-13
Over the past few decades we’ve all become increasingly concerned with preserving and protecting the natural environment in which we live and upon which we must survive. Ecology has entered our vocabulary. We know now about rain forests, the ozone layer, global warming, and the toxic effluents generated by our means of production. Pollution is a terrible reality. We know, too, about our terrible rate of consumption of the world’s natural resources. A lot of evils and human suffering result from the way we live.
That’s what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel passage. The issue was this: What is the radical source of spiritual rot?
As was so often the case, the issue arose in yet another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Is evil something that the world had done to us, coming into us from the outside? Or is evil something we have done to the world and those who live around us? Is evil something that’s external, or is it something that’s internal? Jesus comes down forcefully on the side of it being internal. Said He: “All these evils come from within and render a man impure.”
We have all heard some people shrieking against the Roman Catholic Church, saying that it should get out of trying to manage people’s private lives. Individual’s private lives belong to them and to them alone, we are told, and that the Church has no business rummaging around inside their hearts, their minds or their souls. It’s all a private matter. Curiously, others scold the Catholic Church for being so public. It should stay out of public politics and stop attempting to impose its values on others. The Catholic Church, once again it seems, is damned if it does and at the same time damned if it doesn’t. It’s a position in which the Church frequently finds herself. We’re damned for being silent about the Holocaust and damned for speaking out on the slaughter of abortion on demand.
The refreshing thing about Jesus’ teaching is that it locates the problem. He tells us where moral pollution really comes from. Jesus tells us that we’re wasting a lot of spiritual energy and engaging in massive denial when we look to external sources, claiming that the system makes us do what we do. When we blame our faults on the up-bringing our parents gave us, or blame it on the Republicans, or Democrats, or people of other races, or whatever, we’re simply repeating Adam’s weak excuse when he blamed it all on Eve. A national magazine recently suggested that all sin, morally evil conduct, results from our genetic coding. We do what we do, claim the authors, because our genes made us do it.
Jesus cuts through all of the excuses and denials; He cuts to the source. When it comes to assessing the source of moral pollution we need not waste time examining other people’s lives, or the causes of their evil behavior, we need only assess our own lives and the source of our own personal misbehavior, our own moral pollution and evil acts. We’ll never overcome our own personal moral failures if we busily engaged in examining others’, or absorb ourselves in examining the reasons why others act as they do. That’s the big point missed by the Pharisees… and Jesus wouldn’t let them off the hook.
Finally we need to recognize that any political system, economic system, or social ethos isn’t something that dropped down upon us from somewhere out in the cosmos. No, each and every one of our human social systems or cultures is the product of individual decisions. They are the sum totals of personal moralities and individual choices. So, says Jesus, if you want to change the world then look into the individual soul and make the needed changes there. If you want your family to be a better family then begin by making yourself a better part of it.
And the fact that some will not try to examine and change their own lives is not an excuse for us not to examine and change our own personal lives. Just because others are doing or not doing any thing in particular is no excuse for us to behave or not behave the way God wants us to.
Not for one moment do I intend to belittle the effect of poverty or racism or the systemic oppression of people caused by forces so large that they are beyond individual control. We do have systemic problems. And I am quite personally aware of what genetic coding can do to shape one’s compulsive and addictive urges.
Nevertheless I am also quite personally aware of what Jesus means when He tells us: “All these evils come from within and render a man impure.” If you want to know the reason, the cause and the source of your external behavior, look into your heart and into your soul. It’s there that we must first encounter the problem of evil and wrestle it down. Only after that can we start paying attention to the pollution problems caused by others, and whether or not they have clean hands.
Before we begin talking about the evils of others we must first was our own hearts and souls.