Thoughts on Matthew 5:8

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

When I hear this Beatitude, my focus immediately goes to the word “pure.” I think about things like sexual purity, using “clean” language, being honest in business dealings. “Blessed are the pure.” Purity is something of a novelty in our culture.

I have a feeling, though, that when Jesus’ disciples, that raggedy group of Jewish peasants, heard these words–“Blessed are the pure in heart”–I have a feeling it was the word “heart” that resonated most loudly in their ears.

Because they had heard about purity all their lives. They had read about purity in their sacred texts. (Imagine Leviticus as bedtime reading!) They knew the rules for sexual purity, yes. And also what foods were pure and impure. And also what types of fabrics they could wear. And also that they could not get a tattoo. And also how long it would take to purify themselves after touching a dead body. And after giving birth to a child. And when menstruating or after touching something that a menstruating woman had touched.

Yes. Those disciples knew all about purity.

Granted, we modern Christians tend to misunderstand the significance of purity for First century Jews. It’s not that an impure person–a woman who just gave birth or a man who had touched a dead body–it’s not that they were considered bad people. Certain types of impurity were accepted as a normal part of life. Being impure was not the scarlet A emblazoned on the chest.

Being impure was a temporary state of being. And it didn’t mean you were going to hell. What it mostly meant was that your participation in the temple rituals was limited–which wasn’t even an issue for a lot of folks–especially the ones in the Galilean countryside.

If you were impure, you couldn’t go into the temple courts. (That’s why the priest walks by the Samaritan on the side of the road, right? For all the priest knows, the man is dead. And if he touches a dead body, he can’t enter the temple for a few days, which would kind of make it hard for him to do his job as a priest.)

Really, everyone was impure at one time or another. And it wasn’t that big a deal unless you wanted to go into the temple. Unless you were a priest who was designated to enter the inner courts, to approach the Holy of Holies where God was said to reside. You had to be pure to enter the physical space that was understood to be the residence of the Divine.

You see, in the temple cultic system, it was the pure of body who got to see God.

But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

God, it seems, is not concerned with outward manifestations of holiness and religiosity the way the worldly authorities are.

In the end, it becomes clear that the religious and political authorities do not appreciate Jesus’ focus on purity of heart. It was easier to maintain their positions of power and control if religion was about purity of body.

But for those Jewish peasants on the hillside, listening to the Sermon on the Mount; for the people who are impure, the ones who will never be allowed into the Holy of Holies to see Yahweh–for these people, the words of Jesus are words of life: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon preached on January 27, 2013.]

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