The Place of Decision

Homily for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

If you’ve ever seen a TV show or movie in which the Catholic faith is taken (at least somewhat) seriously, there will often be a scene in which one of the main characters will come to a priest for advice. And almost invariably, at some point during the conversation, the character will accidentally swear. The priest will then reprimand the character with a stern look or verbal chastisement and the character will apologize profusely. Something similar happened to me recently when I was at the grocery store. I was walking up and down the aisles when I crossed paths with a lady who had apparently just sworn. I didn’t hear what she said, but she was mortified when she noticed me in my cassock. She clutched her mouth in horror, made the sign of the cross, and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.” I’m not sure how she was expecting me to react, but I simply did what she asked me to do: I offered her a blessing.

As a priest, I find these sorts of situations—whether on TV or in real life—simultaneously amusing and exasperating. They’re amusing because they seem to suggest that swearing is only offensive when overheard by a man of the cloth, as if swearing is fine if it’s not overheard, or only overheard by someone else. These situations are also exasperating because they seem to suggest that swearing is one of the most offensive things to a priest, and therefore to God by extension. Yes, please stop swearing. But God is much more offended by other things we say and do. God not only hears us swearing, but He also sees what’s in our heart. And He is offended by all the things He finds there. For “[f]rom within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

In our gospel today, Jesus is not knocking external religious observances, as if Jesus didn’t care if we didn’t go to Mass on Sundays or fast on Fridays. Nor is Jesus promoting a kind of subjectivism, where what matters most is having a good intention, not what we actually chose to say and do. What Jesus is doing in our gospel is identifying the place where we make decisions, and therefore the place that is in the greatest need of conversion. And that place is the heart. “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

In contemporary usage, we tend to think of the heart as the seat of our emotions, the place where we experience feelings and desires. But in Sacred Scripture, the gut is identified as the seat of our emotions. For example, when it says in the gospels that Jesus “was moved with compassion,” the original Greek literarily says that He “was moved in the inward parts,” that is, in His bowels, or guts. The heart, on the other hand, is identified in Sacred Scripture as the place of decision. It is where we chose between either truth or error, goodness or evil, life or death, God or nothing. When Jesus says that “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,” He is referring to the heart in this way. A pure heart is a heart that is set on God, which has chosen truth over error, goodness over evil, life over death. A pure heart is one that has been converted, one that has been rid of all that defiles: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.”

You may have heard the expression that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” But this principle is neither biblical nor Catholic. Purity of heart, not cleanliness, is next to godliness. God does desire clean lips. He is offended when we swear. But God is more offended by our impure hearts. And a pure heart will lead to clean lips.

So, what does this mean for us? As Christians, we can sometimes be more concerned about appearing put together on the outside than actually being put together on the inside. Hence, we are more concerned about a priest overhearing us swear, than with getting rid of the things in our hearts that lead to swearing. And often, this excessive concern with external appearances can lead us to place greater emphasis on smaller, rather than weightier, matters. Again, please stop swearing. But God is less offended by our swearing than, for example, our choice to skip Mass on Sunday because we’re on vacation. We might swear on accident but skipping Mass on Sunday because we’re on vacation is the result of a deliberate choice of the heart: a choice to put something first before God. The priest might not see us miss Mass, but God sees the heart. He sees the choice we are making. He is deeply offended by it, and He wants to change us. He wants to convert our hearts and rid them of all that defiles.

The good news is that God is the greatest heart surgeon. He can give us a new heart, so long as we are open to being converted on the deepest level of our being. My challenge to all of us this week is this: to make a thorough examination of our heart. Where in our heart have we compromised? Where have we chosen against God, rather than for Him? Where have we chosen error over truth, evil or goodness, death over life? Let’s make a thorough and honest examination of our heart. And let us bring our heart to God—certainly in prayer, but perhaps also in confession. Let us bring our heart to God and ask Him to purify it, to make it new, to rid it of all that defiles. If we do so, then we can have the confidence that one day Jesus’ promise in the Beatitudes will be fulfilled in us: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Amen.