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Friday, July 17, 2020

The Pure in Heart

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus

~Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God~

Modern people have a tendency, when we read Jesus here ― “blessed are the pure in heart” ― to assume he is talking about sexuality. “Blessed are those who are chaste, who keep themselves free from lust.” Purity here, we often think, means “sexual purity.” Our culture is hyper-sexualized and so we assume our preoccupations were Jesus’s preoccupations. But they were not. Certainly the Christian tradition has lots to say about sexual morality. But the Church Fathers did not interpret this beatitude as a teaching on sexual morality. This isn’t what Jesus was doing here. 

So what was Jesus up to? What would Jesus’s listeners have understood by this beatitude? As a matter of fact, this beatitude is remarkably Jewish. Indeed, an ancient Jew would have understood Jesus’s words here in a radically different way from most contemporary Christians. 

We should start by looking at the promise Jesus makes. He says the pure in heart will “see God.” For the Jews, there is only one way to “see God.” One sees God at the Temple in Jerusalem. 

In the Old Testament, God’s literal presence hovered over the Ark of the Covenant. As the Ark travelled with the Israelites through the desert, the presence of God could be seen as a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). When the Israelites encamped each night, they placed a tent around the Ark called the “Tent of Meeting,” because that was the place where God and humanity had “met.” When the Israelites made Jerusalem their capital and organized their lives around the Temple, they placed the Ark of the Covenant ― with God’s presence above it ― right in the Temple’s center. By Jesus’s time, the Ark of the Covenant had sadly disappeared from the Temple. But the Jewish mind would still have gone to the Temple when one talked about “seeing God.”

More than that, when Jesus says, “blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God,” he is actually alluding to an Old Testament passage from the psalms that most Jews would have picked up on straight away. The passage is actually a reference to everything we have been describing so far. It’s a reference to God’s presence in the Temple and the human desire to behold him there. The Temple was built on top of a hill (Mount Zion), and so the psalmist sings: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4).

In ancient Israel, in order to participate in Temple worship, one needed to be ritually pure. This is partly why the text says only someone with “clean hands” can stand in the holy place. But they must also have a “pure heart.” And this is precisely what Jesus calls to mind for his Jewish listeners ― it is the “pure in heart” who will see God.

But there is something different about Jesus’s beatitude. He goes beyond the psalm. Remember, the Ark of the Covenant is not present in the Temple anymore. The presence of God is not in “the holy place” as it once was. So where can someone go if they want to see God? In short, to Jesus. In the Old Testament, God was present in the Temple over the Ark of the Covenant. Now, God is present in the person of Jesus himself.

In the Old Testament, one needed a certain kind of purity ― clean hands and a pure heart ― to enter the Temple and meet God. Jesus seemed, throughout his ministry, to downplay ritual purity rites like washing. But one still needs to be pure to meet God, Jesus says. Only those with a heart singly devoted can see God. Only those with a heart not muddied up with devotion to other gods ― money, ideologies, etc. ― can finally access the “holy place” and “see God.” And, now, what a pure heart gives one access to is so much greater than the Temple. It gives one access not to a pillar of fire or a column of smoke, but to Jesus. It gives one access to the personal presence of God. Not just now, but forever.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

Mercy and the Merciful

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy~

It is interesting that, at the heart of Jesus’s teaching about mercy, is his insistence upon the way in which God’s mercy works together with human mercy. “Forgive us our trespasses,” he teaches us to ask God, “as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6:12). The two types of mercy cannot be isolated from each other.

When he gives the beatitudes in Luke’s gospel, Jesus, a moment later, makes this same point: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). We’re familiar with this language. These are old hat Jesus quotes, really. Everybody knows them. We think we know what Jesus means. “Don’t judge or we’ll be judged. Right. What’s next?”

But what Jesus said next – though it’s a little more cryptic for modern readers – is actually where things get most interesting. Indeed, Jesus said far more than “don’t judge or you’ll be judged.” In fact, he provided a vivid visual metaphor of what Christian mercy should look like: “Give,” Jesus immediately went on to say, “and it will be given to you. A good measure, one pressed down, shaken up and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:38). What does all this mean exactly? What is all this about pressing down and shaking up? About stuff running over and being poured into one’s lap? To an ancient Palestinian, all of this would have made sense. But to us, it sounds odd, and we usually just skip it and quote the old hat stuff.

So what is Jesus talking about? And how does this image reveal something important about the nature of mercy, about not judging others? The “good measure” that Jesus mentions was a common image for a basket of grain in the ancient world. He’s referring to a good measure of grain. Indeed, he’s referring to a measure so generous it’s been “pressed down.” That is, one that’s been sat upon, stomped upon, and crammed with all one’s might into the bottom of the basket in order to make room for more. He’s referring, too, to a measure of grain that’s been “shaken up.” That is, a measure that’s been stirred up and rattled around to make the grains settle so that even more can be pressed down upon the top. This is also the way my mother packs a cooler – “there just must be more room!” – as she rattles the thing around with a wild look in her eye. Even beyond that, Jesus says this measure of grain is “running over” and, if you were to put it in someone’s lap, it would pour all over them.

The point is this: This is the image Jesus uses to depict how generous Christians should be with their mercy. This is what your mercy should look like. Our mercy is usually heavily qualified: “I will forgive him if he asks my forgiveness. I will forgive her, if she makes some changes. I won’t judge them, lest I be judged.” Jesus says you owe people quite a bit more than that. We should be like my mother with a cooler, manhandling the thing in order to fit just one more soda. That is how we should be when we interpret the lives of other people, especially the people we think the least of. We should be manhandling the portion of mercy we mete out in order to offer more: “There just must be more I can give them. There just must be a reason they think and act this way.” Christians should be ruthless with their mercy.

Consider the people who have disappointed you the most. If the circumstances of your life had been different, might you think the same way they think? Are you in any way responsible for the way they act? Don’t wait for them to shape up or ask for your forgiveness. Shake up the barrel. Press down the grain. Press as hard as you can. Fill it up with mercy and let it run over. And when you pour it all out for someone, see that it spills all over their lap. That is how they will be transformed. And it just so happens that “the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:38).

~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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