Pure in Heart?
“Bless-ed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Our beatitude for today is a beautiful expression... that reflects our need for goodness and holiness... and offers us the promise that God blesses those who possess such virtues. It’s not a controversial statement - at least not to us... not to followers of Christ... those who strive to be faithful, the Elect, the Chosen... we hear the promise in these words.
But in Jesus’ day, such a thought was radical. One commentator I read (John Killinger) says, “This is one of the most revolutionary things Jesus ever said, because it was said it to a nation [to a people] that was absolutely obsessed with [being pure & holy] purification.”
In fact, the Jews seemed to value purity above all else! And in order to be pure (or holy) there were extensive laws about what could and could not be done... or what could or couldn’t be eaten!
Beef was okay, but Hog Heaven and Roger’s BBQ were out... no pork chops, no bacon, no pulled-pork sandwiches! No more Full Moon or Dreamland!
Of course, many of the things we consider “unclean” today - and wouldn’t touch - were okay in Jesus’ day. Locusts, crickets and grasshoppers!
Fish were generally okay... but shrimp and lobster were no-nos! And crab and scallops were banned, too. So you could forget about going to Red Lobster for dinner!
Certain objects failed the purity standards, too. It didn’t take much to make a pot, or bowl (a utensil) unclean - with the only remedy - being to discard the object. Washing wasn’t good enough in some cases!
And whole groups of people were often marked as unclean, too! Women especially. Sorry ladies.
If you were pregnant, and gave birth to a baby boy - you were lucky! You were only considered unclean for a week... and only had a month long purification process before you could re-enter the sanctuary or touch anything considered holy again! If you gave birth to a girl... well... all the times were doubled.
But the purity regulations concerning childbirth paled in comparison to some other laws... particularly the laws regulating leprosy. If you had a skin condition, you were required to present yourself to a priest... and if the priest declared you unclean... you were forced to live outside the community... and if you somehow encountered others - you had to cover you mouth with your hand... while shouting, “UNCLEAN!” so others would know to avoid you!
Of course, if it turned out that you didn’t actually have leprosy, and your condition improved... you could re-enter the community (and rejoin your family)... but only after an elaborate process of ritual, that included ceremonial cleansing and sacrifices. You can read about it all in the 13th and 14th chapters of Leviticus.
The fact is... and I hope you’ve gotten the point... that purity was such a big deal... and the rules and regulations regarding purity were so complex and detailed - that you couldn’t possibly keep them all! Your only hope was the good graces and judgment of another person - another human - a priest...
Can you imagine living in such a way... and hearing Jesus say, “bless-ed are the pure in heart... for they shall see God!”
It was bold, powerful, radical idea!
I’m not so sure that by just reading through the list of beatitudes, that we understand, or appreciate the importance of what Jesus was saying! But the people of Jesus’ day surely did! To people who were obsessed with external purity - with the facade of purity - Jesus said, “blessed are you who are pure where it really matters... bless-ed are the pure in heart!”
Who knows? Maybe Jesus had Psalm 24 in mind:
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
Or who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol,
Nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive blessing from the Lord,
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Maybe Jesus was thinking of the truly innocent… people with “clean hands and pure hearts”… people of integrity… those are refused “lift up their souls to what is false.” Maybe he meant those who are honest in their dealings with God and with other people… Those who “do not swear deceitfully.” Of course, regardless, Jesus’ words were different… They were unlike anything his followers had ever heard before.
Of course, to be truly pure… is to be innocent, to be honest... to be transparent. Purity also refers to that which has been sifting through, and cleaned up! Like wheat that has been processed, and the chaff removed. Or wine that hasn’t been watered down, or metal that’s been purified by fire to remove any hint of other alloys. Something that’s pure is clean, and unmixed, unadulterated. Kind a like Ivory soap, that’s 99.44/100% pure! To be pure is to be single minded… Not double minded… as the Epistle of James puts it.
Soren Kierkegaard, was a Danish philosopher and theologian, who said, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” In other words, to have one’s heart and mind and entire being focused on one thing… that’s purity of heart.
Of course, that’s much more difficult than it seems… much easier said than done. And the fact is, single mindedness itself can be misguided. You and I can be single mindedly determined to do things that are against God‘s will... so single mindedness alone does not lead to purity.
In other words... you & I can be single mindedly, single heartedly focused... we can go to church every Sunday, we can know the scripture forward and backwards… and still be the devil! Because if you & I don’t have a heart that’s loving, gracious, and merciful, and forgiving, can we truly claim to be pure in heart?
King David, who’s actually described in God’s Word as being “a man after God’s own heart” - struggled with purity... so much so that he cried out the words we used for our call to worship today: (Psalm 51)
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
You know... maybe... purity of heart is a gift - not to be earned (so-to-speak) - but something that’s granted by God himself... “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
The story is told of a little girl who wanted to help her mother clean the house. The mother could hardly believe it, but she gave her daughter some paper towels and Windex, and asked her to go wash the front window.
The little girl went about happily... and started washing the window. After a while the mother went to check on the little girl… and found that instead of being the cheerful and eager helper she’d been just moments before... her daughter was now in tears. So the mother asked, “what’s wrong?” And the little girl replied, “I’ve been working on one window pain for a long, long time, but there’s a dirty spot that just won’t come clean.”
So the mother took a look at the spot… and immediately recognized the problem. The stain was on the other side of the glass. No amount of rubbing could ever have made it clean.
You know, I think that’s the way it is for most of us. We try so hard at times, to appear clean… to look put together… to look righteous, maybe even Holy, but nothing seems to work. We go to church... we try to be compassionate and considerate. We even try everything the world tells us we need to be whole, and complete, and satisfied. We figure if we can just join the right organizations... and do enough of the right stuff... that we will finally be good enough, that we’ll finally be accepted, that will finally get it right.
And all the while... despite our best efforts... what matters most is on the other side - in fact, it’s on the inside. What matters most is our heart. And no amount of polishing or cleaning up the outside of one’s life, will ever be able to reach that spot, where the stain truly is.
For God judges not the outward appearance... God looks at our hearts. (1 Samuel 16:7)
We can fool people... but we can’t fool God.
But the Good News is... God never leaves us in our distress! God can clean and purify that spot we can’t reach! In fact... that’s why Christ came! He came to purify and redeem, the impure and fallen. And all we have to do... is accept his offer.
Let’s stop trying to make life perfect. Let’s stop expecting people to be more than they can be.
Let’s allow Christ to cleanse our hearts - as we lean on him for what we simply cannot do.
Bless-ed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.