Wednesday February 11, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (1 Kings 10:1-10) Gospel (St. Mark 7:14-23)
In the Gospel today, as Our Lord speaks to us about what defiles a person, we recall that from the Old Testament there were all kinds of ways that a person would become ritually impure: just simply touching something that was impure, eating something that was unclean, doing anything that would cause a person to become ritually impure. All of these things were external. There certainly were the commandments that God had given to the people, and their sins would also cause ritual impurity. But most of the things that the people would have to purify themselves for before they could enter the temple to worship God had to do with things that were external to themselves. For instance, if someone touched a dead body, if someone touched a pig, if someone touched a leper, even if you had a clay pot and it touched something that was unclean then everything in the pot became unclean, and if you drank or ate what was in the pot then you became unclean. That was the way they were looking at things. It all had to do with the idea of making sure that one was pure and proper before the Lord, and to be able to understand that there were lots of different ways that a person could be affected.
Well, what the Lord was doing was letting us know that what happened in the Old Testament with all of these laws regarding the ritual purity really was pointing, not to the externals that cause these things in the Old Testament, but to the internal realities. That is, if you just look at some of those points you see that if we are dead on the inside, if we are in the state of mortal sin, we are ritually impure; if we touch something internally, that is, if we choose it, if we accept something that is inappropriate, something that is unclean, we become unclean, we become ritually impure. And so what in the Old Testament was external, Our Lord is now pointing to the reality that it is what is internal that makes us impure, that those things simply are external expressions of the internal realities.
That is the way we would just naturally understand the way things operate. The body expresses the person; so when you make a choice, it is expressed in and through the body. Well, in this case, now it is to be able to say, “We can look beyond just the externals and we can look at what is on the inside.” And so the Lord gives a whole list of some of the things that are in the heart, all of the points that He talks about: the evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All of these things, He tells us, make us unclean. So it is what is in the heart, it is the dispositions of the heart, it is the choices that we make. Those choices, of course, are going to find an external expression. But, nonetheless, it is the choice itself – not merely the expression of the choice – that makes us unclean. And in order to be ritually pure, to be able to come before the Lord to worship Him, we must go to confession. So we need to be very careful.
For instance, we can look at the situation in the first reading. We have two people whose motives were not good. We have the Queen of Sheba who comes to Solomon. She brings all kinds of gold and spices and garments and so on, and she plays this rather manipulative game because she came for a purpose. Solomon, being the wisest man in the world, had a major weakness. We know that he had hundreds of wives and hundreds more concubines. The Queen of Sheba was wiser than Solomon because she came for the purpose of going home with a baby and she succeeded in her purpose. So you have Solomon who is being arrogant and showing off, and, of course, desiring something that he should not. And you have the Queen of Sheba, who comes with an impure motive, hiding it under things that look good, that is, asking questions about a variety of things so that she can get answers to bring them home and buttering him up with all kinds of niceties and so on. But the reality is that when she went home she had exactly what she wanted. And so we see how it is what is in the heart, not necessarily just the external actions. In this case, the external adultery would certainly be that, and it certainly made both of them impure in that way; but it was the intention. She came with a bad intention. He is acting with a bad intention. Both of them, of course, wind up falling into sin. But the impurity was already there and that is the thing we have to understand.
It is what is in the heart. We need to be humble. We need to be charitable. We need to be pure. We need all the virtues that we have to be striving for. And it is not just the externals. That is how it has to start – we need to be able to stop doing whatever unfortunate actions we have ourselves involved in – but then we need to continue on and we need to eradicate these things from our hearts; not just from our actions, but from our hearts, to change the disposition so that the virtue is true. Not just that we are putting up a nice façade and making it look good, but that we truly are holy. That is what the Lord is looking for: someone who is not just exteriorly clean, but someone who is interiorly purified through prayer, through sacrifice, through the sufferings of life, through union with Christ. That is what He is pointing to: a deeper reality of holiness, not an external purity, but an internal purity, a purity of the heart, for persons who are truly filled with virtue.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.