“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” God’s lament (spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and echoed by Jesus) still rings true today, as the news brings a constant stream of evil acts committed by people whose hearts can only be called defiled. This week, I’m thinking particularly of the man who executed reporters Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television, and then sought to intensify the horror of his act through a carefully planned social media campaign.
“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” It’s easy to name the acts of an insane mass murder as evil. It’s convenient to think of evil as something committed by “them”—by a small number of “crazies” on the fringes of society. But Jesus doesn’t address his words to “them”; he’s talking to you and me. He begins with the religious leaders, moves on to the crowd, full of ordinary, everyday folk, and ends up preaching to his very own disciples. The religious leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees, see themselves as a moral compass. They believe they are the “good” people, the people who keep God’s law in all its nuances. They understand the spiritual necessity of proper rituals, such as those around washing: washing hands before eating; washing food from the market; washing cups and pots and kettles. These religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority by pointing to the dirt under his disciple’s nails. Jesus responds by pointing out the filth of evil intentions that reside within their hearts. The heart, in the biblical world-view, is the center of the human being—encompassing emotions, intellect, and soul. According to Jesus, there was something rotten in the core being of these Scribes and Pharisees, something that they refused to acknowledge, and which they concealed behind a pious facade.
Jesus responded to the religious leaders’ challenge by calling them out—but he was not singling them out. He was, as one commentator put it, offering an answer to the age-old question of where evil comes from. Evil, he argues, is not a force that enters us from the outside, but “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” I think Jesus is really speaking broadly here. In my view, he’s saying that we’re all capable of the worst that any human being can do or be. It’s like the playwright Terence said in around 170 BCE, “I am a man. I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Red Lake and Virginia Tech and Aurora and Newtown and Charleston and last Wednesday—these are just a few touchstones or the evil that infects the human heart. It’s natural to want to separate ourselves from such horrors, and from a society that allows this carnage to go on. But Jesus urges us to recognize that there is something in the evil that happens in the world that reflects you and me, that implicates us.
A call went out to faith leaders to participate in the Black Lives Matter protest yesterday at the State Fair. People were making threats toward those planning to march. Clergy were asked to come and be visibly present, and to help de-escalate potentially violent situations. I went because we had been asked to be there. And I went because I feel that the vitriol unearthed by this event represents the racism lurking under the surface in our state, the real heart of white folks bound up in the evils of white supremacy. The thing is, I’m not talking here about somebody else, some other white person. I’m talking about myself. I hope that I never participate in any action for social justice thinking that I am standing on the moral high ground, condemning others. I go into the streets to disrupt my own complacency, to shut down my own daily oblivion and awaken my own conscience, to confess and protest my complicity in evil of oppression, and to ask God to heal and purify my heart.
Jesus knows that sometimes we humans are directly responsible for evil. Sometimes we are the ones pulling the trigger or hurling the racist threats. At other times we passively tolerate the violence that is within and around us, thereby allowing it to thrive and grow. Jesus’ discussion of “Corban” specifically condemns the practice of giving one’s money to the religious community instead of using it to support a parent in need. This example reminds us that we human beings can find all kinds of ways to be violent without raising a weapon. We can steal away the lives of others with words, policies and laws, with the ways we wield wealth and power. We can cheat and lie and steal and make it all seem legal. We can gossip and slander and judge and convince ourselves we’re just trying to help.
I recently finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. It’s presented as a letter from father to son, part diary and part sermon, full of flashbacks and philosophical musings. Rev. John Ames has served his whole life in the same small town on the edge of the prairie. He learns that he has a heart condition, and doesn’t believe he’ll live to see his young son grow up. There is much about Ames’ style of ministry that seems incredibly old-fashioned. There are no boundaries between his personal and professional life; his role is truly expansive. I laughed out loud reading about the time he arrived at the home of parishioner only to find that she has asked him to visit because her sink is broken. He doesn’t seem to think this situation is odd at all; he just goes and gets his tools and fixes her sink.
All the same, there is much about Ames’ account of his life and ministry that resonates for me. John Ames describes faith in very simple terms, as a struggle to live in right relationship with other human beings, and thereby with God. Ames seeks to honor his wife and son, to come to terms with the complex legacies of his father and grandfather, to accompany his best friend through his old age and dying, and, most of all, to learn to forgive and love his best friends’ son, Jack.
Ames spends many sleepless nights in prayer over his relationship with Jack. At one such time, he writes:
No sleep this night. My heart is greatly disquieted. It is a strange thing to feel illness and grief in the same organ. There is no telling one from the other. My custom has always been to ponder grief; that is, to follow it through ventricle and aorta to find out its lurking places. That old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself—that same good weight worries me these days. But the fact is, I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. (p. 179)
Evil intentions reside in the human heart, every human heart. That doesn’t mean we must act on them. That doesn’t mean the next mass shooting is inevitable, that there is no cure for racism or poverty, that we shouldn’t try to change our world. But evil is a tricky thing. We cannot combat it effectively unless, like John Ames, we are willing to examine ourselves with a searching honesty: acknowledging our own capacity to do harm, surfacing our self-deceptions and hypocrisies, and grounding our tattered and grieving hearts in God’s mercy and love, which is so much greater than our own.
Jesus, in saying that evil comes from the human heart, does not mean that we are completely depraved. The truth is, we are a mixture of terrible evil and astonishing good. The key is what centers our heart, what anchors the core of our being. Jesus, with Isaiah, says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines… You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Our hearts are far from God, and yet, God longs to welcome us, to hold us close, both the best we can be, and the worst that we are. God is not looking for us to hide our failings and flaws behind good deeds or church attendance or marches for social justice or prayerful rituals. God, in the words of the old hymn, yearns for nothing more or less than to become the “heart of [our] own heart.”
Driving around town this week, listening to the classical music station, I heard the tail end of a piece by the somewhat quirky composer Arvo Pärt. After the music concluded, the announcer related that Pärt, when once asked, “What is the most beautiful instrument?” replied, “the human heart, when it is in tune.”
To this, let us say, Amen. May it be so for us.