Cultivating the Heart
I want to reflect on the Gospel readings this morning.
By now, the disciples have been criticised twice for breaking the oral law. They failed to fast (2:18) and they failed to observe the Sabbath law (2:24). Here, they were criticised for eating with unclean hands. We have a parenthesis in v 3-4 where Mark explained to us what the usual practise of the Pharisees and Jews. “Why are they not following the tradition of the elders?, they asked Jesus. The Pharisees, as we know, give as much authority to the oral tradition as the written law.
Jesus’s replied by standing with the prophet Isaiah:
6 This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You focus on what is external, but internally you do not square up. In modern language, we call that “lacking in integrity”, for it is not a wholistic response.
And you let go of God’s commandments and cling to human traditions. They allowed the Corban tradition to evolve in a way which go against the 5th commandment.
Focus on what God is really syaing. Focus on whagt is within.
Jesus went on to explain to his disciples in private (v 17-20). The heart is the seedbed of all evil actions. And he listed them in v 21-22.
Lets reflect on the “heart” for a moment.
I should not need to tell you that the word “heart” here do not carry a literal meaning. It is not referring to the blood-pump here. In Malay, the equivalent is” hati" which actually means liver. So, when you are eating pig liver, you are having a “hati meal.” Carries the same idea - it is a reference to the inside of you, the “real you”, the core of one’s being, our guts, deep within. In other words, the heart is simply YOU. You wash off the dirt that is clinging to your hand religiously. You wash and keep the pots and pans squeaky clean in the name of God. But you ignore the true source of evil - the anthropos? In fact, this word occurs a few times in this passage. No amount of ceremonial washing can keep the anthropos clean spiritually or rid us and the world of evil.
I should not need to tell you that the word “heart” here do not carry a literal meaning. In Malay, the equivalent is hati, which actually means liver. (Chi chap chok - hati meal) The same idea..at the center of our being, in our guts, the real you, deep within. In verses 21,22, the list of sins - all starts with the heart.
So, let’s look closer at this “human being.” I want to focus on a word that is closely associated with heart: "desire.” We know from that the fall was associated with desire.
verses of sins)
A word that is closely associated with heart is desire. Jesus is saying: what your heart desires moves you into action. Thos inner impulses and intentions are driving you.
A few years back, I spent some months in Toronto for my Sabbatical. There I saw a huge and beautiful temple. Hundreds were flocking to it. There was an effervescent light which glowed through her glass walls. And right at the heart of the building, was this image of her goddess. The image has a shape of a fruit. I have not met someone who had wanted one of her offerings, and not eventually get it.
‘The heart wants what it wants,” as Woody Allen famously said when he was being questioned by a CNN reporter for having a sexual relationship with his girlfriend’s daughter.
A few years ago, a missionary friend introduce a book to me, Desiring the Kingdom, by James Smith. In fact, he actually sent a few copies to me. It wasn’t light reading but it was one of the best books I have read in recent times. He argued, from an Augustinian perspective, that humans are essentially lovers. There is a love pump within us. For we are always desiring and longing for something, for someone. The effect of the fall is not that human stopped being lovers - the love pump is not turned off - but rather that our love and desire is being misdirected. It is aim at ends other than the Creator and his kingdom. This disordered love leads to a disordered life. For what we love will ultimately define who we truly are. What we desire after will ultimately shape our lives and destinies.
It is not a new idea. It is as old as the Bible itself. But post reformation, we have bought into a Cartesian model of the human person. We assume that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. But actually we are affective beings, we are moved by what we see, sense and experience. The world follow these rules religiously. Humans are being shaped and discipled by the arts, TV dramas, by their peers, families and contemporary culture. To counter this formation of the heart, the church teaches and preaches more and louder, more talking heads. Thinking that ideas can somehow douse these flames of passions. As James will put it, “While Victoria Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water in our minds.” The church is “pouring water on our head to put out fire in our hearts.” “
Ideas alone cannot shape us. We need worship, music, liturgy, service and community relationships to shape the hearts of men and women. If u are a pastor or church leader, you won’t regret spending time with this book. There is a whole lot more in it and even what I have just said, is not even an adequate summary. But my mention of it suffice as an illustration.
As I read, I think of my own late Mother. When she was finally baptised, we tried to traffic into her mind abstracts biblical concepts and doctrines. Hoping that by doing so, she will be grow into a “true Christian.” We were not making much headway. The breakthrough when she join a cell group on our Chinese congregation. When her sister was very sick, her cell group leader travelled with my Mum all the way to PJ to visit my aunt. My Mum grew into a beautiful Christian and had her happiest years in the last quarter of her life. In her heart, her gut, at the core of her being, she met Jesus.
I also think of PKH. Flagship work, stay in vocational school which prepares students to work in the Hospitality industry. The aim of the teachers is not to get them to go to church. But they are taught a Christian message which intertwines with the fabric of life. i.e work, values, attitudes, skills, trust in God. Discipled before they become believers, before they go to church. It was very moving to hear their testimonies. We just witnessed over 50 baptisms.
But I am suppose to preach from this Bible text, not the book.
Coming back to this passage, therefore...
1. We need to hear what God is saying, not human opinions or traditions. Ideas are not unimportant. We need to continually, read and meditate of Scripture. For the Bible can search and shape our hearts -
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
2. Search me- We need to pray that prayer, continually when we worship. There is an erroneous and widespread teaching that one should not need to confess his sins. How can we stop praying the prayer of the Psalmist: “Search me O God, and know my heart today?” My dad in law, Dr Loh Tee Fun was a famous paediatrician in his days. He specialised in treating babies and young children with heart defects, like “hole in the heart. “ He did that by listening through a pair of stethoscope. When they invented ultra-sound, suddenly, his skill wasn’t that needed anymore. Now, if only there is a spiritual ultra-sound, some kind of modern technique which can tell us our the condition of our own hearts. Yes we have come out with all kinds of tools to discover our strengths and weaknesses..DISC, Strength finder. But is there a tool which can map out the conditions of our hearts? Is there a tool which can identify who we really are? Therefore humility, contrition, honesty and openeness before God.
3. Cultivate our heart (likewise - reflect on our ministry)
3. Cultivate our heart
We wont have time to elaborate on this point. But you get the drift. We need to focus on what is shaping our hearts. We need a pedagogy of desire, so to speak. A pedagogy of the heart. The teaching and practices of Jesus and the early church can guide us. A wholistic approach, One that engages our whole being. One that engages our culture, and i should suggest (as James did), even uses it to reach the hearts of our members and those we are trying to reach. I am not suggesting that we dispense with solid teaching classes or bible studies. But equally important, worshipping together, fellowship groups, spiritual friendships, serving together, journeying together. We need a spirituality which discourages external religiosity, that do not put emphasis on positions and Christian imaging. Coming from a hierarchical church with titles and positions for clergy and lay, I don’t need to tell you what a struggle this can be in a church like mine.
Even we sometimes don’t know..thus Search me and know my heart.
Christian growth is a lifetime cultivation of the heart - impulses, desires, conscious and unconcious. Don’t confuse passion & emotion with desire. Yet, these passion cna be acry of this generation and in worshipping, our hearts can be shaped. Why contemporary songs/ Embedded in their “global city” culture (may not be yours)
perfect example- the work of PKH
(Back to the heart, back to God)
Back to the heart, back to what God is saying.
Every Sunday, I will religiously write a message all our Congregations. It is called .... The Vicar Writes. I wrote this piece in February of 2017. I will share with you a shortened version of it:
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart
Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart
This is a line from a classic Negro spiritual song which some of us may be familiar with. I remember it from time to time, as I did this week. The whole chorus is just that line, with a beautiful haunting melody.
It reminds me of where it all starts. And where it matters most. The Bible uses the Greek term kardia for the nerve center from which we desire, think, act and react.
As we grow older, or time progress, life does get more complicated of course. We philosophise, theologise, theorise, and since it rhymes, improvise and compromise as well. Life moves from the basic commitments of love, faith, faithfulness, integrity, sincerity and humilty to that of ideas and concepts. And as we progress in ‘maturity’ in ideas and articulation of them, strangely, we become more immature in our basic behavior and life. As we grow, we seek mastery over others, events and our own progress. Yet at the same time, we lose mastery over ourselves and the very simple values and practices that we know from the kardia of our lives.
So, when we say a Christian is mature, what do we mean? Does it mean that we cease to read the Bible regularly, and yet we are able to articulate spiritual solutions for society? Does it t mean that we cease to be loving, kind and considerate towards those dearest to us, while we reflect on the deepest ideas of sacrifice for mankind and society? Do we think of overseas missions but clueless about sharing the gospel to an inquiring neighbour or colleague ?
The list goes on. And somewhere in our heart, the Negro spiritual hums quietly. I said “as I did this week.” It is a word for me as much as it may be for some of you. Perhaps a Canon needs it even more as the complexities of life and ministry can easily drown out the Negro spiritual line.
I said “as I did this week.” It is a word for me as much as it may be for some of you. Perhaps a Canon needs it even more as the complexities of life and ministry can easily drown out the Negro spiritual line.
Pray for me as I will for you. That we will always want to be followers of Christ …in our hearts.
First, Jesus' outlook on the human heart needs careful qualification. For example, he does not denounce the heart for producing only evil intentions. Believe in total depravity if you must, but I still think it's worth underscoring that people are occasionally capable of great good and selfless compassion.
Second, remember: it's not the scribes. Not the Pharisees. Not the law. What Jesus subjects to fiercest criticism in this passage is the human being. Joel Marcus notes the concentration of the word anthrōpos("human being" or "person") eleven times in the span of and says:
"The basic problem Christians should be concerned about, Mark seems to be saying through this striking pileup [of the word anthrōpos], is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of the anthrōpos. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world."3
Third, Jesus' comments propel us to keep our evils in the spotlight. Whatever Satan is in Mark's Gospel, it is not the cause of wrongdoing. That job belongs to the human heart. Placing blame on a diabolical entity lurking in the shadows risks diverting attention from our own propensity to rebel and destroy. Truly "evil intentions" dwell, not only within society's notorious figures, but within ourselves and those we love and trust most fervently.
We know enough about the human condition to say that evil is about more than an individual's selfishness or bad decisions. It roams our collective existence, our social, economic, and familial systems. We are at once perpetrators and victims. And our victimization furthers our capacity to perpetrate. "The human heart," or the human will, remains a complex thing. Our kin and culture usually keep us ingrained in patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.
Fourth, the biblical text needs a preacher to make Jesus' point personal, so we can see his generalizations made concrete within our particular experiences. The same goes for the solution we believe Jesus promises to this deeply rooted problem. Without soft-pedaling the passage's negative focus, preachers and other worship leaders also must direct a congregation toward the love and mercy God nevertheless extends to each and every broken anthrōpos.
I end with this quote by St Augustine:
“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Amen.