“Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” This principle, which Christ explains in today’s Gospel, was a very significant teaching for the Jews to assimilate, and it continues to be important for us today, although with a slightly different emphasis.
In the Old Testament, God had given the Jews certain laws about material things and actions that were “unclean”. Eating, touching, or doing those things made a person impure, and he or she had to undergo a ritual purification, akin to purification from sin. The Pharisees in particular had gotten very caught up in these ideas and had developed an elaborate and nearly obsessive system of laws that focused excessively and nearly exclusively on external or material things, such as which foods were considered pure or impure, and how and when things were washed, and not enough on the mind, heart and soul of the person.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus explains that things like food that come to us from the outside are not in themselves good or bad, and do not make a person guilty in and of themselves. What matters much more is what comes from within the person: the way the person interacts with the people and things around them. For example, tying this in with the first reading today, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil wasn’t bad in and of itself; Adam and Eve sinned because they ate the fruit in an act of disobedience, distrust, and rebellion against God.
Today we don’t have “forbidden trees” or the same kinds of rules about food and washing as the Jews, but the principle that Jesus explains to them still applies to us. On one hand, we need to do our best to be sure that our intentions and goals, and the attitudes of our hearts, are always pleasing to God. If we act motivated by lust, greed, envy, or any other vice, we contaminate ourselves with sin, even if the external act was apparently good. As an example, imagine a young man going to church every Sunday, just so he can stalk and seduce a young female parishioner. On the other hand, we have to remember that no one can force us to sin; although we can’t always be in control of our circumstances, we can work to control our own reactions to what we encounter. Just hearing malicious gossip doesn’t make us gossipers; what matters is whether we join in, or whether we try to change the conversation to respect everyone’s human dignity.
May God continue to transform our hearts with His grace until everything that comes from within us, and the way we interact with the people and things around us, is pure, and our every thought, word, action and reaction is truly Christ-like and pleasing to Him.