Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).
Also see Mark 7:1-23.
In spring of my sophomore year at Davidson College, Dr. David Kaylor, a lanky, gentle, and brilliant professor, closed our first class session of the course, “Life and Teachings of Jesus,” with this question:
Was Jesus a religious man?
That was 40 years ago. I completed two more years of college, then five more of graduate school. But never again did I hear a better question. Nor have I heard a better one since. I know, because I still wrestle with it.
At first, I wanted to say no, Jesus was not a religious man. For although I attended church all my life, and at the time aspired to the ordained ministry, I felt terribly impatient with religion. Meanwhile, Jesus inspired ever more awe. Although Jesus drew me closer, I felt ill at ease with religion.
As the years passed, I realized that I was not alone as the love of Jesus and skepticism of religion spread like a wildfire about me. Among today’s college students, the numbers of those who claim no religious affiliation, the “nones,” rises faster than any other religious group. Those who claim the mainline brand of religion I knew and still know so well continue to decline and disperse.
As for me, the 20 year-old in the t-shirt and jeans eagerly scribbling notes, what frustrated me with religion? What made me so fond of the fierce rebuke of Amos?
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21, 23-24).
Those verses, too, I still ponder these 40 years later because that college boy just won’t go away, still living within, not quite letting me rest in religion.
Maybe the boy won’t let me rest because of stories of Jesus himself. Listen to Jesus in today’s text: The religious authorities ask why his disciples refuse to follow the sacred protocols of purity by washing their hands before eating. Jesus fires back immediately like an angry young man, like Amos himself, accusing them of pious farce and worshiping in vain. “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (v.8), he snaps, and religion is nothing if not traditional. Then he embarrasses them by pointing out their twisting of religious precepts to justify failure to provide for their parents in old age.
Mark continues the story:
Then he calls the crowd again and says 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 (Mark 7:14-15, 21).
That expresses the pet peeve of the angry young man that lives on within me: the seeming preoccupation with appearances, of looking the part without engaging the heart.
Beneath appearances lies the heart, and only purifying it will get us our heart’s desire. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8), Jesus said, and because of that Beatitude and this teaching in Mark 7 about the outpourings of the heart revealing whether our faith is salt that’s lost its saltiness or light that shines through the darkness, I, a much older man now, conclude that Jesus was a religious man.
Indeed, Jesus was a radically religious man. The term, “radical,” derives from the Latin, radix, meaning root. A radical does not oppose tradition but goes back to the root of its beliefs and practices and calls people back to it. In this encounter with the religious authorities, Jesus does not oppose religion. To the contrary, he exposes the forgotten root of religion and fights for it, teaching them what religion is ultimately about.
It is not ultimately about keeping tradition, important as tradition is. It is not ultimately about ritual, important as ritual is. It is not ultimately about certifying religious authority, important as authority is. Religion is about what we do with the heart: our heart, our neighbor’s heart, our God’s heart. How do we honor the heart’s deepest desire to love and be loved? What do we do when we place it into the hands of another, into the hands of a healer or spouse or an angel whom we entertain unawares? What do we do when someone places their heart into our hands? What do we do when it breaks?
Let me add another, more negative reason I conclude that Jesus was a religious man: Secularism does not impress me at all. When I heard Dr. Kaylor’s question, the secular mindset that permeates our idea of common sense already dominated my assumptions about the good life. With some notable exceptions like Dr. Kaylor’s class, college classes and culture dug secularism deeper into my psyche.
Since then I slowly learned that purifying the heart in our age entails the hard and often painful work of detaching ourselves from the secularism that surrounds and infiltrates our minds. That 20-year-old boy within me continues to dig up the weeds of secularism from his soul to detach and look from the ancient and new perspective of Christ within.
I understand secularism as the pervasive modern experiment in practical atheism, trying to understand life and live it without reference to transcendent mystery. In our modern project of disenchanting our world, we reduce purity to antibacterial soap and colon cleansings. We trivialize morality while christening tricks for financial success as categorical imperatives. And we explain away love as nothing but a hormonal drive to propagate the species.
However, the secular intellectual project has not fared well with constructing a compelling alternative narrative of the good life. That is what secularism is: trying to live a good life in a reality we imagine to be driven by necessity without mercy, a reality that does not address us personally, that does not summon us, does not love us. We make of our lives what we make of it. Good luck, secularism says.
And if we speak the language of secularism, the language of life that relegates religion to a leisure activity and nothing really serious, we don’t hear anything any better coming out of our mouths than the duplicitous, farcical talk of yesterday’s scribes and Pharisees and today’s spin doctors and commercial advertisers. Pious politicians use religion to sugar coat vicious agendas against the poor, never mind the Letter of James, which says,
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:17).
We have taken Jesus’ teaching that the sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath, as permission to forget the sabbath, which is to forget taking the time to delight in the blessings of God. We have taken Jesus’ teaching to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s to mean that we can separate our political decisions from our covenant relationship with God, when in fact Jesus meant to give our all to God and God’s service, to spare nothing and let Caesar have his coin that he can’t take with him when he dies. We have taken Jesus’ teaching not to show off our piety to mean that we need not practice spirituality at all, that we need not speak of God or even to God.
If Jesus meant those things, how convenient for the secular mind, the mind that would cleanse life of transcendent truth. Yet, religion is not the problem. The secular use of religion is. Secularism does not impress me. I am disenchanted with disenchantment.
The religious response, to borrow a phrase from William McNamara, begins with “a long, loving look at the real.” It abides in mystery rather than impatiently and insecurely trying to explain it away. It makes peace with the incomprehensibility of God, with the almost comic bedrock truth that all we know of God is God’s mercy, and all else we can say with any integrity is metaphorical or better yet, silent.
Religion is about relationships sustained by mercy. The word, “religion,” derives from the Latin root, ligare, the same root for, “ligament,” connective tissue. Religion is about connection, vertical connection with God flowing into horizontal connection with each other.
Therefore, true religion won’t let us live very long in neighborhoods with no walkways to visit our neighbors. It won’t let us get away for the rest of our lives with turning our gaze from the image of God in even the most unlovely people God puts in our path. It won’t put up much longer with our segregation of the church hour and our exclusion of the beloved poor from consideration in the voting booth. Religion will come back to bite us if we think we’re too sophisticated for it because Jesus, the religious man, was religious before he was a man at all. He was the Word with God in the beginning, with whom and through whom all things were made, the Word that eventually became flesh and lives to this day relentlessly keeping us connected through love.
Jesus Christ is not finished with us. And he will not be until our hearts are so pure with seeking his face and our earth so saturated with the sacred that we can pronounce religion obsolete, not because we outgrew it or washed it away, but because there will be nothing left in opposition to it. If you know that God is love, then you know that is our best and only hope.
The above meditation is the text of a sermon I delivered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rome, Georgia, on Sunday, September 2, 2018. To listen to the sermon, click here.