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The Heart of the Matter

At almost every turn in Jesus’ ministry, it seems that the Pharisees are there challenging him. The Jewish sect of the Pharisees were very concerned with following Mosaic law, that is, the 613 laws laid out in the Torah (the first 5 books of our OT) that details how a Jewish person must worship and live in society. Much of it is about what makes a person clean or unclean in the eyes of God – when and how one washes, what one eats, what one can touch, and so forth.

In this passage in Mark 7, the Pharisees are harping on the fact that Jesus’ disciples haven’t washed their hands and arms in the traditional way required for ritual cleansing before eating. Jesus defends his disciples not by answering the question directly, but by going on the offensive. He calls the Pharisees hypocrites and quotes the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in such a way that implies that these Pharisees have a lot to say about following the rules and loving God, but Jesus can tell their heart isn’t in it. Jesus also basically says, Oh, by the way, your worship is worthless, all you really care about are your silly manmade rules. You don’t have a clue what true worship, true faith, true love is all about.

Then Jesus gets more definitive, “It’s not what we put inside of us that makes us clean or unclean, it is what comes out of us.” Dirty hands don’t make us unclean in God’s eyes. Eating the wrong food doesn’t make us unclean in God’s eyes. What God cares about is what is in your heart.

Many of us are sick to death of the so-called Christians out there who seem to have the same issues as the Pharisees – they want to define Christianity by a set of rules and doctrine, and have forgotten all about compassion. Many of us don’t even want to call ourselves Christian anymore because it’s gotten a bad name. It’s become almost synonymous with right-wing, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, immigrant hating literalists. This country seems to be full of Christians acting unchristian (IMHO).

Now, I'll be the first to admit that none of us is perfect. We’re all capable of acting unchristian, and probably do. I saw a t-shirt once that seemed to sum it up for me. It said, I love Jesus, but I swear a little. Honestly, we don’t have to be in the modern day Pharisee camp to judge others, act out in anger, swear a blue streak, disregard the environment, or turn away our neighbors, or any other non-Christian like things. Perhaps non-Jesus like things is a better way to put it, because for the most part he seems to have embodied the compassion, love and non-violence that is present with spiritually mature person in deep connection to the Divine.

Jack Kornfield, in his book, A Path With Heart, has a chapter on "Spiritual Maturity." When I read this it became very clear that this is what Jesus was and is calling us to - spiritual maturity. Grow up. We don’t need rules to govern our every move if we truly, TRULY love God and KNOW God. Because if our heart is right with God, connected to the unconditional, wasteful, unbounded Love of the Universe, then we will live that in our lives. If our heart is connected with God, then compassion will be our first course of action in any given circumstance. If our heart is connected with God, then our faith will be fully integrated with the other aspects of our lives.

We can’t be connected to God and build a wall to keep out those who are hurting, scared, hungry and seeking a better life. We can’t be connected to God and shout obscenities at a child’s sports game. We can’t be connected to God and dismissive of other people’s health and well-being. We can’t be connected to God and only care about money. We can’t be connected to God and be emotionally, physically, or spiritually abusive to anyone (including ourselves).

It's a matter of the heart. plain and simple.

Well ok, so it may plain and simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. Personally, even after 24 years of ordained ministry,I have to work at being spiritually mature. I have to work at following Jesus’ example. I have to work at leading with compassion and understanding. And when I do, I feel better about myself, and frankly,I have less to regret!

Kornfield wrote, “I learned that if I am to live a spiritual life, I must be able to embody it in every action: in the way I stand and walk, in the way I breathe, in the care with which I eat… The way I treat my body is not disconnected from the way I treat my family or the commitment I have to peace on our earth… The vision of my practice has expanded to include, not just my own body or heart, but all of life, the relationships we hold and the environment that sustains us.”

The passage in Mark really has very little to do with washing and eating (that literal reading limits how this speaks to us). I believe it is about aligning everything in our lives with our spiritual connection to the Universe. It invites us to eat, sleep, breathe, speak, act, and think in a mindful, loving, compassionate way. And when we are confronted with parts of ourselves that are less than mindful, loving and compassionate, we can’t just stuff them away, or ignore them, we’re asked to deal with them so that we become fully integrated, whole, mature spiritual beings.

We will become what we practice. And we must practice love and compassion, mindfulness and kindness if we want to grow and mature spiritually and if we want to know peace in our hearts.

Sharon Salzberg tells a story about leading a loving-kindness retreat in Oakland, California. She said whenever she teaches these retreats in an urban setting, she asks the students to do their walking meditation out on the streets. They are to choose individuals they come across on whom to practice their loving-kindness practice by silently repeating the phrase, “May you be happy, may you be peaceful.” Even if they don’t feel loving, the power of their intention to offer love is not diminished.

The retreat center is a few blocks down from the Amtrak station and during one retreat a woman from the class saw a man get off the train and she decided to focus on him for her meditation. Silently she began reciting the phrases. Almost immediately she began to judge herself, I must not be doing it right because I feel so distant. I don’t have a great wash of warm feeling coming over me. Nonetheless, she returned to her intention to look on all beings with kindness and continued reciting, “May you be happy, may you be peaceful.” The man was dressed in a suit and tie and seemed nervous, she began judging him: He looks so rigid and uptight. Judging herself, she thought, Here I am trying to send loving-kindness to someone and instead I’m disparaging him. Still, she continues repeating the phrases, aligning her energy with her deep intention: to be a force of love in the world. At that moment the man walked over to her and said, “I’ve never done anything like this before in my life, but I’d like to ask you to pray for me. I am about to face a very difficult situation in my life. You somehow seem to have a really loving heart, and I’d just like to know that you’re praying for me.” 

Wow. Clearly this woman wasn’t perfect in her practice, but she had awareness when she slipped into judgment, and she had a consistent intention to be a loving force in the world. This could be us, too.

Love & Light!