Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
The Blame Game — we live with it every day. Television news and print media are filled with Republicans blaming Democrats and Democrats blaming Republicans. President Bush, we are told, is responsible for the mess we’re in; President Obama is responsible for everything; Sarah Palin is a political pincushion, and so forth. The Blame Game is played at an Olympic level in Washington. The Catholic Church is a favorite target of Blame Gamers. Immigrants are to blame, the French are ridiculed, and on it goes. When children and teens do not perform as they should their schools and teachers are blamed. The Blame Game is a huge part of our public discourse.
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 along with global warming. We know now about rain forests, the ozone layer, global warming, and toxic effluents generated by our means of production. Pollution is a terrible reality. We know, too, about our excessive rate of consumption of the world’s natural resources.
There is another problem equally as serious to which we’re giving some attention these days… the toxic presence of moral pollution throughout our culture, a spiritual pollution that is threatening the future lives of our children and grandchildren. Living in a clean world involves more than simply what we’re doing with the material creation God has given us. Living in a clean world also involves the spiritual nature God has likewise given us, that which we call the soul. The soul is something that will last forever – it will never die. Consequently caring for it is of enormous importance in terms of our everlasting happiness or eternal misery. We are not bodies that have souls; we are souls that have bodies, souls that can be polluted and corrupted.
That’s what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel passage. He confronts us with a fundamental question, a question we do not face as we should: What is the radical source of spiritual rot? From whence comes the evils we face each and every day?
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 the voices of some people complaining about the Catholic Church, saying that it should get out of trying to manage people’s private lives. Individuals’ private lives belong to them and to them alone, we are told, and that the Church has no business rummaging around inside peoples’ hearts, minds, and souls. It’s all a private matter they say and then they scold the Catholic Church for being so public about its moral values. It should stay out of debating public policies 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 present day 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 turn our attention look to external causes in claiming that forces outside of ourselves make us do what we do. When we blame our faults on the upbringing we received from parents, blame our troubles on the Republicans, or Democrats, or people of other races, or whatever, we’re simply repeating Adam’s weak excuse when he blamed his sin on Eve. Some pundits suggest that all sin, all morally evil conduct, results from our genetic coding. We do what we do, the claim is made, because our genes make us do it. That’s Adam’s excuse all over again.
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, our own 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. Said He:
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
(Matthew 7: 3-5)
We need to pay attention to the fact 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 and cultures is the product of our 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.
Likewise we need to see the fact that because some people will avoid trying to examine and change their own lives is no excuse for us not to examine and change our own personal lives. Just because others are doing or not doing certain things is no excuse for us to behave (or not behave) the way God wants us to.
Not for one moment do I intend to overlook 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. Moreover I am quite personally aware of what genetic coding can do to shape one’s compulsive and addictive urges.
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 examining the evils of others we must first examine our own hearts and souls. The Blame Game does not deal with the problem; it only avoids it.
He summoned the crowd again and said to them, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
About Charles Irvin
Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”