That’s quite a list of evil things Jesus identifies as coming from within. It reads like a script for a soap opera or one of the reality shows. In fact, though, today’s readings reflect the human condition, the challenge we face in keeping focused on our relationship with God and on our call to holiness. It is a lesson we in the Church need to be reminded of in a special way these days.
Jesus called the Pharisees to account because their external ritual observances became ends in themselves not true worship of God. That can happen to us. We need rules and regulations, norms and principles to guide us, as reference points to direct us beyond our human frailty. But if they become ends in themselves they become about us rather than pointing us to God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit.
This challenge of keeping fixed on the higher things can be reflected in a subtle way when our faith and prayer life become routine. The story is told that when the great library of Alexandria in modern day Egypt was burned down only one book survived. It seemed just an ordinary book and so was offered for sale. In fact it was a valuable book because according to the story inscribed on the inside of the cover was the “secret of the Touchstone.” The touchstone was a tiny pebble that could turn anything it touched into gold. The writing said that the precious pebble was somewhere on the shore of the Black Sea among thousands of others. But unlike the others it was warm to the touch. The excited book buyer headed to the Black Sea and began his search. He would pick up a pebble, sense it was cold, and in order not to mix them up, throw it into the sea. He spent weeks which became months doing so. Lift a pebble, note it was cold and throw it into the sea. Then one evening he picked up a pebble, it was warm to the touch, but out of habit, threw it into the sea. He had lost track of what he was doing and why. So can we.
I have a morning routine of prayer. Whatever time I wake up I say certain prayers even before I get out of bed. On some days I think back and ask did I say those morning prayers or not? If our prayer life is simply a matter of words thought or spoken rather than a conversation with God it can become like the ritual observances of the Pharisees, without spiritual impact.
Jesus in the Gospel encouraged the religious leaders of the day and encourages us, to look into our hearts to reflect on and to ask what are our real purposes and motivations for what we say and do. Jesus offers a list of negative actions or motivations, evils that he said come from within, that come from our human weakness, or the evil one tricks us into. His list can become an examination of conscience. Let’s look at a few of them.
Malice and deceit. This is intentionally planning and acting in ways that take advantage of the good will and trust of others. This might be as simple as making untrue or exaggerated claims to entice people to go along with us or telling little lies to build us up undeservingly, or gossiping in ways which hurt the reputation of others. Sadly the political world is filled with this these days. The better way is prudent honesty, transparency as the modern day calls it, and accepting the consequences of our bad choices.
Unchastity, adultery, licentiousness. These come down to the selfish use of God’s gifts of the body and mind, and the selfish use of other people. It is the dominance of our senses regardless of the consequences or impact on others, and therefore the impact on our relationship with God. If it feels good, do it. It can result in vows broken, relationships shattered, the strong overwhelming the weak, limited resources spent for lesser purposes. The result is the breakdown of the family and the loss of joy. Sadly it is also a scourge within the Church. The better way is purity of mind and action and being respectful of all life from conception to natural death and of every person every day.
Theft, greed, envy. The focus is on me and what I want whatever it takes to get it not on what Christ calls me to. A United States senator once noted that political corruption can start with a free cigar, a pleasing gift wrapped with expectations that grow. A mother asked her child, did you know that God was present when you stole that cookie from the kitchen? Yes was the reply. What do you think he was saying to you? He was saying, the child answered, there’s no one here but the two of us, so take two. There is never enough to satisfy the childish rationalizations that greed and envy require, even if we steal to get it. The better way is acknowledging and being grateful for God’s gifts and blessings, accepting whatever they are and using them well and sharing them with others.
Evil thoughts, blasphemy, murder, arrogance, folly. All of these are putting oneself ahead of God or in place of God. They result is thinking we can go it alone and we can control it all, that we have all the answers. The rapid changes in technology have reinforced this pride in human ability and accomplishment.
Technology can be used for good or ill, to heal a baby in the womb or identify its gender for the purpose of abortion, to ease pain or to ease someone who is imperfect and vulnerable to an early grave. New discoveries almost every day offer even more opportunities to try to manage the gift of life in place of God. The better way is humble awe at God’s creative hand and using the gift of reason for good.
To live as Christ calls us to do requires humble perspective. A missionary wanted to impress his local parishioners by taking them for a ride in his plane. They glided over their village, the forests, and rivers. The locals did not seem much impressed. Once they landed, the missionary exclaimed, “Wasn’t that wonderful. There we were up in the sky, above the houses, above the trees, above the mountains looking down on earth. Oh what humans have achieved.” There was a pause. Finally their leader spoke, “birds do that.”
Someone said there are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘thy will be done’, and those, to whom God says, ‘all right, have it your way’. Whose way do we really want it to be? That is a question we leaders in the Church need to reckon with.