Being clean on the inside. What does it mean, and how do we go about seeking to be clean on the inside? One thing is crystal clear from what Jesus said in this passage of scripture: it’s not about any kind of outward ceremony, it’s about what happens in our minds and in our hearts. It’s who we actually are, within ourselves, which determines whether we are “clean” or not.
Now the only way we’re going to be absolutely “spotless” inside is to have that state imputed to us by God, through Jesus Christ. However, what we can actually achieve in the here and now, by the grace of God, is to grow in the fruit of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, humility, faithfulness and self-control. So becoming clean on the inside, in my view, is not some amorphous concept which we would have trouble wrapping our minds around. Nor is it hopelessly un-measureable in our day to day lives. It’s about growing in the fruit of the Spirit.
I believe that these things grow within us when we have a growing capacity to reflect on our own behaviour, and our interior life. In part, it has to do with being aware of our own “self-talk”, the thoughts that go through our minds pretty much without our noticing. Jesus says, in this passage, that from the heart come the evil ideas which lead people into immorality, involving such things as greed, pride, jealousy, slander and deceit. Now we don’t live in the grip of such things, none of us here do. But they do, if I may say so, nip around at our ankles from time to time and just occasionally we may get a real bite from one or other of these things. This is where awareness of our interior life really comes to the fore.
There’s an old saying which you’ve probably heard: “you can’t stop the birds flying around your head, but you can stop them making a nest in your hair.” When those thoughts and inclinations which we know are wrong come to our attention, then we have a choice about how to deal with them. Do we squash it down, or deal with them? It may be for the best to simply acknowledge that our “unattractive” inclinations are there, and to admit to ourselves that there are parts of ourselves which aren’t as nice as they could be. Welcome, with the rest of us, to the human race.
I have come to believe that trying to deny that certain traits we don’t like are, in fact, a part of us -just doesn’t work. When we try to completely ignore our- for instance- angry, prideful, greedy, or spiteful inclinations they are going to pop up in some way over which we have very little control. This has been my experience, and I won’t be surprised if, at times, that’s been your experience too.
We have more chance of dealing with those inclinations if we admit that they are part of us, and ask God to help us deal with them. Personally, I have real confidence that when we pray about these things, God responds in ways which help us to work through them- with the help of God’s grace. I think I have become accustomed to being in a position of needing to face my anger or my greed- for instance- and having to make a choice about how those things would be dealt with. Trying to squash those feelings or ignore them has never worked for me. Recognising those feelings helps me not to lash out or be peevish. The important thing is that other people, and we ourselves, don’t get hurt in the process of dealing with our faults. Being alert to what’s actually going on inside one is the key.
Living life at a very fast pace does not help this process of reflection. If our life is swamped with noise and activity, then we don’t get much of a chance to sit back and take a look at our progress towards spiritual maturity, do we? The opportunity to rest and reflect is not only a physical and emotional neccessity; it’s also a spiritual one. We need to nurture ourselves in our whole being, not just in part. Rest and reflection are foundational to our wellbeing.
We also have in this scripture passage further teaching by Jesus on the centrality of love, and not outward appearances. Jesus challenges the Pharisees head on about their adherence to ceremony and to rules, but failure to offer practical love to others. The practice of ‘Corban’, or making an offering dedicated to God for exclusive use in the temple, could cut across the duty to support one’s parents. I have read that the Rabbis taught that the vow involved could not be broken. I have also read that the Mishnah, a collection of sayings which were codified after the gospels were written, taught that such vows could be broken if a person was left without enough to take care of their parents. So we need to be aware of both sides of the story in this case.
Clearly, compassion for others in their need is the highest priority. Generosity is very closely linked to compassion. For us to grow in generosity, we need to know within ourselves that God will be generous to us. Perhaps that’s harder for us to grasp in a wealthy society than it would be in poverty- think about it. We work hard and we see our achievements as the “appropriate reward” for our work. We’re inclined to see it as our doing, rather than God’s generosity to us. On the other hand, we read of people visiting extremely poor communities and being received with the utmost hospitality of which the people are capable. Perhaps, at times, being poor makes people more sensitive to the needs of others than they might otherwise be.
It all seems to come down to loving God and our neighbour in reality- not just as a matter of form. And we are counselled to love ourselves too. The spiritual life is as simple and as hard as that. Thanks be to God. Amen.