January 27, 2013
“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 many people today, when they hear this, will 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.
Jesus’ followers knew about purity, and they knew–at least many of them–that they were impure. These were mostly people who didn’t have the economic means to live a lifestyle that allowed them to remain pure; people without the economic means to make the “offerings” that would restore purity. According to New Testament scholar Sam P. Mathew, the purity system was a fundamental means of maintaining the rigid class structures within Jewish society in the First century.
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.
Which, of course, the people would already know if they paid attention to the prophets. If they had paid attention:
To Micah, who said:
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
If they had paid attention to Amos, who said:
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (5:23-24)
If they had paid attention to Isaiah, who said: Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
. . .
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
If the people have paid attention to the prophets, they already know that God is not concerned with outward manifestations of holiness and religiosity.
And if they continue to pay attention to Jesus, they will hear it again. And again. What is on the inside matters at least as much as what we can all see.
Later in this sermon on the mount, Jesus tells the people: ““You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” . . . “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And Jesus continue this theme throughout his ministry:
“The Sabbath was made for people; people were not made for the Sabbath.”
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
According to Jesus, the people who look like they have it all together, who follow all of the external religious rules–these are not necessarily the people most able to see God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart. For they shall see God.”
In some ways, this is freeing, because we are not obligated to follow all of the externally imposed rules and regulations. We can see God even if we are wearing a cotton polyester blend or are on our period or ate bacon for breakfast. That’s all good.
In some ways, though, this makes the whole business of religion–of life really–so much more complicated. Because we know if we’ve violated a particular external rule. Like, if we commit adultery, we know it. But the condition of the heart is much harder to gauge. Is that lust we are feeling, or just a healthy appreciation of the human body?
I mean, we can’t give ourselves a quantitative score for purity of heart the way we can for purity of body. And we most certainly can’t evaluate other people’s purity of heart. Which is really annoying if you’re trying to run a religion and need to create a hierarchy and maintain some sort of standards for participation.
So, despite the message of the prophets, despite Jesus’ proclamation of blessing for the pure of heart, we still have a tendency to make judgments based on external, observable traits.
I’ve mentioned before a group that I heard about on NPR that tried to register as many Christian voters as possible before the last election. Of course, first they had to decide who counted as Christian. So they developed a point system. You got a certain number of points if you homeschooled, if you were a hunter, if you went to church, if you were a Nascar fan. It’s really a rather bizarre list. But they had to identify some external factors, because there’s just no way to measure purity of heart based on a person’s internet searches and affiliations.
Friday’s Story Corps on NPR was a conversation between two brothers. When the oldest, Bryan, was in his late teens, his strictly religious father found a love letter to Bryan from another guy. His dad proceeded to take Bryan away from the house and drop him off in the middle of the night with a $5 bill. Bryan was no longer allowed in his house. And his seven siblings were told they would be beaten if they talked to Bryan on the phone when he called. Their parents did not want them to “catch the gay.”
Over the years, all eight siblings either ran away from home or were kicked out by their parents. Talk about enforcing some strict purity codes.
Of course, more liberal Christians have their purity codes too.
After I attended a workshop on spiritual practices in the family, I contacted the presenter for help with a blog project I wanted to do. I did let him know about my views on homosexuality–seeing as how it relates to issues of family. And he wrote back to say that he believed differently than I did on the subject and so assumed I would not want to work with him. He said that had been his experience in the past with “inclusive” Christians. Which strikes me as rather ironic.
And purity codes are certainly not limited to Christian–or even religious–folks.
I read a blog post once by a former Vegan who had, for health reasons, begun eating meat and other animal products in moderation. There was a note on this post stating that the comments were closed because the writer had been getting death threats! So apparently there are people out there who have a very interesting purity code whereby eating animal products violates the sanctity of life but threatening to kill another human being is acceptable.
But that’s the kind of ridiculous situations we get into when we seek external purity. When we think that following a particular set of rules is the way into relationship with God. A lot of Jesus’ teachings serve to just point out how silly everyone was being about this whole religion thing: “You blind guides!,” Jesus says to the religious leaders, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” It gets to be ridiculous.
In the end, it becomes clear that the religious and political authorities did 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.”