Following “blessed are the merciful” comes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8, NRSV).
I will admit it, I have never been a big fan of doing dishes. There really is no reason why, but things always seem to run more smoothly when there is a dishwasher in the house. But on those occasions were I don rubber gloves and fill the sink with soapy water, I know that if cups are going to get clean, you focus on the inside and the outside gets clean in the process.
I bring up this household lesson because it is an example Jesus uses in Matthew 23. There translators picked the English word clean instead of pure for the same Greek word. Jesus says:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.Matthew 23:25–26, NRSV
So why would Jesus say this? In his day, one of the most important religious texts was the Mishnah. It recorded Jewish oral tradition that aimed to make sense of the Law. Essentially, it taught the people what they needed to do to please God.
Pure Hands Or A Pure Heart?
When translated to English, the Mishnah is 844 pages. Of those pages, religious leaders dedicated almost 200 to external cleanliness. Think about that for a moment. You have one book to try and explain everything someone needs to know about your faith and you dedicate 22% of it to external cleanliness rituals.
In other words, the dominant religious tradition of Jesus’ day had a strong focus on checklist obedience. If you engaged in a proper external performance then everyone else around you would know how holy you are. As a side effect, it reminded everyone who failed to live up to the standard you set, how unholy they are. This lead to the common people referring the Pharisees. However, in the language of abundance reconstructed, it is religion based on a spirit of power.
Pure In Heart
Then Jesus comes along and says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Jesus does not dismiss what happens externally, but he is far more interested in what happens within that drives external behaviors. What really matters to Jesus, is a spirit of love that guides a pure heart.
That last sentence can be a bit confusing to a Western mind. This confusion comes through a blend of how we understand heart and the ubiquity of power. Let me unpack that a bit.
In the West we tend to associate love and the heart with emotions. The heart is the seat of feelings. Love is one of those feelings. We see feelings as a response to external stimuli. So unless something happens that prompts us to feel loving, how can we have a heart motivated by love?
But in the Jewish mind, the heart is so much more. To talk about someone’s heart is to talk about their inner life. So the heart includes the feelings, mind, and will. This means you think and move and be in accordance to the heart. You could actually say that your heart is what interfaces with the spirit that drives you.
This is at the very heartbeat of the Jewish prophetic tradition. There God talks about coming to people made poor in spirit, people who mourn, people thirsting for righteousness, and being merciful to them. That mercy, includes giving them a new heart that interfaces with a new spirit. As an example of this, in Ezekiel 36:25-27, the prophet writes for God:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.Ezekiel 36:25–27, NRSV
In other words, the divine work in the life of people is about heart transformation. It is about taking the heart of stone, that is feelings, thoughts, and a will driven by power, and transforming it to a heart of flesh driven by love.
A heart that interfaces with power will always focus on the external and how things appear. It dedicates 22% of its teaching to checklist obedience. It is a faith that looks good on the outside, but one motivated by selfishness. There, love becomes a response to the world around you rather than something that comes from within you.
I think one of the primary reasons people reject Christianity today, is because what they see in the church is what Jesus saw in the Pharisees. There is no pure in heart and people ache to see God.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.