6. the pure in heart
Blessed are the ‘pure in heart’ – who really ‘clean up their act’.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt.5.8)
Jesus encouraged people to be ‘righteous’. (Matt.5.6) In fact, he consistently challenged ordinary people to be ‘more righteous’ than the Pharisees – the ‘most righteous’ people of his time. (Matt.5.20) He said that the problem with the Pharisees was that they ‘clean the outside of the cup but inside (they) are full of wickedness’. (Luke 11.39) He wanted people to be ‘pure – or clean – in heart’. (Matt.5.8)
The word Jesus used for ‘pure – or clean – in heart’ is recorded as ‘katharos’; a word that was used to describe ‘winnowed’ wheat and ‘unadulterated’ wine; a word suggesting motives that were not mixed. Jesus said that it was essential for anyone who really wanted to be righteous ‘to clean the inside of the cup’ thoroughly. (Matt.23.26) ‘Be perfect,’ he said, ‘as your heavenly Father is perfect’. (Matt.5.48)
Faced with Jesus’ expectations, the obvious question followers of Jesus are forced to answer is: how in the world does Jesus expect us to be able to clean up our act to such an extent that we can be ‘perfect’?
I think part of the answer to the question is in being clear about what Jesus meant by being ‘perfect’. The adjective used here is ‘telios – which is derived from the noun ‘telos’ – which means ‘purpose’. Thus it is clear that what Jesus is expecting in terms of ‘perfection’ is that we ‘realize our potential’. We are created ‘in the image of God’ to reflect the love of God in our lives as realistically as we can. So, as far as Jesus is concerned, for us to be ‘perfect’ we need to let the light of the love of God so shine in our lives, that people will see our ‘good deeds’ and ‘glorify our Father in heaven’. (Matt.5.16)
It is clear Jesus’ expectations of us have nothing to do with abstract ‘faultlessness’, and everything to do with concrete ‘faithfulness’; but what is not so clear is how we can practice concrete faithfulness.
Most Christian scholars suggest that at least a part of Jesus’ answer to this question is ‘discipleship’ – or following carefully in the footsteps of the master and incorporating his virtues into our character.
For it is in imitating Jesus that all of us can learn how to embody the virtues he incarnated by heart. In the Sermon On The Mount, the virtues Jesus advocated we incorporate into our character include: humility, empathy, self-control, righteousness, mercy, integrity, non-violence, and perseverance.
Some Christian scholars, like Dallas Willard, believe that what Jesus was saying in the Sermon On The Mount was that, in order to embody his virtues, his disciples needed to be able to distinguish between the higher ideals he advocated and the lower ideals his society advocated, and be committed to practice the higher ideals he advocated, over and above the lower ideals of society. Thus, for example, Willard says Jesus calls his disciples to practice the ideal of ‘no anger’ over and above the ideal of ‘no murder’1
|The lower ideal of his society||The higher ideal of Jesus|
|“You have heard it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 5.21||“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother (or sister) will be subject to judgment. (Eg.) Anyone who says to his brother (or sister), `Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” 5.22|
The trouble with this perspective is that the higher ideal advocated is a completely unrealistic ideal. In fact, the higher ideal of ‘no anger’ is an unbiblical ideal, precisely because it is unrealistic ideal. None of our examples of perfection in the bible – not even Jesus – practiced ‘no anger’ as a principle. Not only did Jesus get angry (Matt. 21.12-17), he occasionally called opponents ‘fools’. (Matt. 23. 17)
Christian scholars, like Glen Stassen and David Gushee, believe that, while saintly Christian scholars like Dallas Willard, are right in asserting what Jesus was saying in the Sermon On The Mount was that his disciples needed to be able to distinguish between the ‘higher ideals’ he advocated and the ‘lower ideals’ his society advocated, they have been wrong in distinguishing those ‘higher ideals’ themselves.
They have identified as ‘higher ideals’ unrealistic ideals, which Jesus never advocated. And those of us who’ve tried to practice these unrealistic ideals ‘as gospel’ have experienced profound disappointment.
If we read the Sermon On the Mount circumspectly, we will notice when Jesus contrasts society’s ideals with his ideals, he doesn’t simply state society’s ‘lower ideals’ first and his ‘higher ideals’ second. He states society’s ‘ideals’ first; the vicious cycles of unresolved problems, which society’s ‘lower ideals’ do not deal with, second; and his ‘higher ideals’, which alone can solve the unresolved problems of the world, third. Jesus’ ‘higher ideals’ – which are actually very realistic but incredibly creative transformative initiatives – are to be found, not in his second, but his third set of statements.
|Traditional Norms||Vicious Cycle||Transforming Initiatives|
|“You have heard it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 5.21||“But I tell you that anyone who is angryem> with his brother (or sister) will be subject to judgment. Anyone who says to his brother (or sister), `Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” 5.22||“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother (or sister); then come and offer your gift. Settle matters (or make friends) quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.” 5.23-26|
|The Old Imperatives||Descriptive / Not Prescriptive||The New Imperatives 2|
It is clear that the emphasis here is not on the second point but on the third point. The imperative we are to take to heart is not an unrealistic ‘no anger’ policy, but a creative response to conflict resolution.
If we are to be ‘pure in heart’ according to the Sermon On The Mount, we need to reflect on the first sets of points, consider the second set of points, but always act on the third set of points Jesus makes.
|Traditional Norms||Vicious Cycle||Transforming Initiatives|
|1. Don’t kill||But being so angry you’re abusive can be brutal too||Go, be reconciled|
|2. Don’t commit adultery||But a slow-burn lust is adultery in your heart||So remove yourself from the temptation (Mk 9.43-50)|
|3. You can divorce||But divorce usually involves infidelity||(Be reconciled 1.Cor.7-11)|
|4. Don’t swear falsely||But taking any oath sugg- ests making false claims||Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’.|
|5. Take an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.||But retaliating entails returning evil for evil||Turn the other cheek,|
|6. Love your neighbour and hate your enemy||But hating enemies doesn’t deal with enmity||Love your enemies, Bless those who curse you|
|7. Contributing publicly||Is parading your charity not practicing generosity||Give without advertising it|
|8. Fasting publicly||Is parading your piety not practicing sincerity||Fast without publicizing it|
|9. Praying publicly||Is parading your religiosity not practicing spirituality||Pray authentically in secret|
|10 Lots of prayer||Is simply repeating a lot of empty sacred phrases||Make the Lord’s Prayer the prayer of your heart|
|11 Pile up treasures on earth (Luke 12.16-31)||But thieves break in and steal||Store up treasures in heaven|
|12 No one can serve two different masters||Its impossible to serve God and money at the same time||So seek the Kingdom of God and don’t worry about money|
|13 Do not judge lest you be judged||If you judge you’ll be judged by the very same standards||So take the plank out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbour’s|
|14 Do not throw your pearls before swine||They will trample on them and then tear you to pieces||The only one you can totally entrust yourself to – is God! 1|
Jesus says that all those who ‘clean up their act’ – practicing his idealistic-but-realistic initiatives – will see God. They certainly will. The ‘pure in heart’ will see God reflected in everything they say and do.