~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.
Click here to subscribe to these reflections by email (Note: you must verify the confirmation email!)