Focus on Intentionality
Wednesday February 9, 2022
Fifth Week of Ordinary Time
by Fr. David M. Knight
Do we see it as good news that Jesus calls us to focus on our hearts?
He had the Jewish laws about “clean and unclean” foods in mind when he said, “Listen to me, all of you: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out of a person’s heart are what defile.” But when his disciples asked him about it he expanded: “It is what emerges from within a person — that and nothing else — that makes one impure.”
Jesus puts the focus on intentionality. “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Or “evil thoughts,” or “wicked designs”). The point is that all the things Jesus lists as bad behavior he is seeing as examples of something evil in a person’s heart, as revelations of something wrong inside of the person.
The list itself is very interesting. The translators cannot agree on what all the words mean. Some are clearly actions — “theft,” murder,” “adultery” — but some seem to describe abiding states of mind, such as, “greed,” “malice,” “envy,” “arrogance,” and just an absence of moral values (“folly” or “an obtuse spirit”). The basic point, however, is clear: God looks, not so much at a person’s actions, but at the person’s heart. No matter how bad (or good!) a person’s actions might be in themselves, objectively, what God sees and judges is the attitude and intention in the heart that is behind them. And we don’t always know what that is. Hardly ever for another; and much of the time, not even for ourselves.
Oddly enough, falling into sin can sometimes be a positive experience! It is a common discovery among priests that in hearing confessions, it is not so much sins they hear as ideals. For example, someone says, “I have been using bad language a lot.” What is the person really saying?
The fact that someone cusses is hardly a revelation. The revelation is that this person, who may think of himself (or even herself) as just a dirty mouth, is aware in the act of confessing it that he really has a higher ideal than has been evident in his conversation. You can’t look down on anything unless something in you has risen above it. So when you call a sin a sin, that tells you — and the priest — that your ideals are higher than your behavior.
Jesus teaches in this reading that God would rather see us embracing his ideals from the heart, even if we fall down in living them, than see us doing good because of some external pressure or motivation, but not from the heart.
Initiative: Think the second thought. Ask what feeling guilty says about you.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry