So the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Where does evil come from? Surely the most popular answer to that is “over there.” Point over there, name the evil, condemn it, and separate yourself from it. The Pharisees Jesus jousts with today are far from the only human beings that have dealt with evil like that. In fact, it’s interesting how our postmodern culture has enthusiastically, though I’m sure unwittingly, adopted one of the principles at the heart of the Pharisee movement: purity means overtly signaling your distance from evil. "It’s over there; I condemn it; see how pure I am." Whether you signal your distance from evil by what you post on Twitter, or signal it by how visibly you observe the purity rules of a religion, trying to set yourself apart from the bad guys and make clear your own virtue is one of the most common human behaviors. Where does evil come from? The easiest answer may be “over there,” but Jesus’ answer is “in here.”
Now the idea that it’s not just some hearts over there, but every human heart, that harbors and expresses evil intentions is not something Jesus made up on his own: it is the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures which he grounds himself in. And it is the witness of the New Testament Scriptures that the Holy Spirit will inspire after his death and resurrection. And it is the witness of all the saints of the church over the past 2000 years, who came to know the depths of their own fickle hearts best of any of us. Mainstream Christian testimony is unanimous: Evil is not over there; it’s pervasive, including in here.
This is, of course, one of the parts of the Christian account of human nature that has now been the most resoundingly rejected in Western culture. Not that the Pharisees liked it – in fact, the disciples didn’t like it either. They push back against Jesus in this chapter too, and he retorts, “Are you also without understanding?” But I think we in the contemporary West might like this teaching least of anybody.
What passes for spirituality among us now teaches that everyone has a true inner self that is beautiful and sacred, and that the more we discover and express that self, the better and more spiritually authentic we and the world will be. But at the same time – this is a logical contradiction, of course, but people don’t seem bothered by that -- it also says that when certain other people express their inner selves, their speech and their deeds are evil, and it is our sacred duty to exclude and erase and shame those people, and to be seen doing so, because after what they did, you know, they are just beyond redemption.
Now at those two words, anybody who takes Jesus seriously ought to be able to recognize a problem. When we hear a human being characterized as beyond redemption, something ought to kick in and we ought to say, “Hey, wait a minute. ‘There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy like the wideness of the sea. There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed.’”
Christians know, or at least should, that God’s plentiful redemption is enough for you, and for me, and for everyone. We can’t declare him unable to redeem anybody. But in order to make sense of that offer of plentiful redemption and mercy, and draw on it in your behavior towards others, we need to take time to internalize what Jesus says about people, as actually applying to us. What Jesus says about the human heart as applying to your heart.
Alan Jacobs has written, and I think it’s true: “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is… vindictiveness.”
What is it in the Christian account that can set us free from moralism and vindictiveness, and give us this all-important means of offering and receiving forgiveness? The answer is Redemption. The plentiful, final and full redemption you and I and the whole human race need has been provided for by Jesus through his Cross and Resurrection. It’s not up to us. You may not believe that yet, or not be sure if you believe it, and that’s fine, but I wonder if you might try with me to imagine how it works.
After the Cross, we now know that a justice greater than we can imagine will be done on the last day, and that it will perfectly satisfy both God, and our own need to see things made right. We now know that death and evil have lost any ultimate power over us and the universe. We now know that our partial and shortsighted efforts at improving the world will be swept up by God in a great cosmic rectification of all things, in the new heavens and the new earth. And we also know that this redemption works not just at that cosmic level, but that it’s available to deal with even the smallest misdeeds in your life and mine.
And where Jesus is so psychologically brilliant in this chapter is in asking us to start grasping his kind of redemption right there. He knows, probably, that starting anywhere external will feed all our worst tendencies. He doesn’t ask us to start grasping how God makes things right by trying to improve or sanction others. He doesn’t ask us to start grasping how God makes things right by thinking in terms of global solutions or policy statements. He asks us to start grasping how God makes things right, how vast and full the redemption he offers on the Cross is, by noticing our own need of it. By letting him do it for us.
Not to stop there. His redemption is so big you can’t stop it anywhere. He asks us not to stop with our own heart, but to start with our own heart. Because however bad we think those evil people over there are, however much they merit being erased and shamed, if we start trying to figure out how things get made right by looking at them, that will feed our self-righteousness and our moralism and our natural tendency to exclude. Self-righteousness and moralism and exclusion are all things Jesus came to save us from!
So if we want to understand redemption Jesus style, Scripture style, Christian style, we start with ourselves. We start with the realization that in making things right God reaches all the way down. Redemption reaches to the bone, to the tiniest flaws and the most intimate hurts. Redemption both rectifies in God’s sight, and starts healing in our own experience, everything that is broken in us. God’s loving justice addresses even the tiniest cracks.
So, for example, your hateful little remark about people who won’t get vaccinated, or about people who want to require the vaccine -- or whatever it is, it could be any little sin – up against the perfect beauty and the perfect love and the perfect holiness of God, that flare of anger, that little crack, is something he loves you enough to want to make right. Right there, God wants to offer forgiveness and redemption. And as you begin to look at your little cracks -- or your big ones, the ones that still keep you up at night – as you look at those up against the perfect beauty and the perfect love and the perfect holiness of God, you start to internalize that if we are to erase and shame those who have fallen short of that perfect beauty and perfect love and perfect holiness, we will erase and shame everyone. Start with me.
I am beyond redemption. And yet Jesus redeemed me, because that is who God is. This is the scope of the love we’re talking about, and this is the place from where we just might be able to look outwards without moralism and without vindictiveness. Examining your own conscience brings it home: We’re all beyond redemption, and yet Jesus still redeems.
Once you grasp it, it seems too good to be true. But it is true. Yes, as Jesus teaches, evil is not just over there, in someone else. It is from within, from the human heart, including yours and mine, that evil intentions come. And there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty. There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed. Even for those of us – all of us – who without Jesus are beyond redemption. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.