Homily for February 8th, 2017: Mark 7:14-23.
“Everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile,” Jesus says, since it enters not into the heart but the stomach.” The heart in Jewish thought was considered the seat of feelings and learning. The gospel writer Mark adds his own summary of what Jesus has just said: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
Jesus’ disciples were almost all Jews. For them there was a whole list of foods which not be eaten because they were unclean, starting with pork. By declaring all foods clean Jesus was making a radical break with this Jewish tradition. But this raises a problem. If Jesus so clearly abolished the distinction between clean and unclean foods, why was there the great debate, reported in the Acts of the Apostles and three of Paul’s letters, about whether Gentile Christians were bound by the Jewish food laws? The answer to that question is simply: we do not know. There are many things in the Bible that we cannot understand.
What we can understand is the list of vices that Jesus gives us: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. Evil thoughts may be of many kinds: hatred, anger, lust, resentment. The list goes on and on. All of us have such thoughts from time to time. As long as we are trying to turn away from such dark thoughts to better ones, evil thoughts remain only temptations. And a thousand temptations do not make a single sin. Indeed Jesus himself was tempted after his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. Yet we know that Jesus never sinned.
Theft is forbidden by the Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where there was no theft? We wouldn’t need to lock our homes or cars. If we left something behind, we’d know it would be there when we came back. Could there be a better example of the Commandments being signposts to human happiness, not fences to hem us in? Envy is the one vice that brings its own punishment with it. Whenever we give way to envy, we’re unhappy. Blasphemy is not respecting the holy name of God. Arrogance puts people off: no one like an arrogant person. And folly means misusing or wasting the gifts God showers upon us.
Jesus, who gives us this list of vices, has also given us the best defense against them: the closing words of the one prayer he has left us, “Deliver us from evil.”