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Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Raise your hand if you consider yourself to be pure in heart. Raise your hand if there is someone in your family who is pure in heart.
If we agree that few, if any, are absolutely pure in heart, what was Jesus driving at with this beatitude?
In her study of these eight blessings, New Testament professor Margaret Aymer, notes that there are different answers to the question: How is your heart? One person might respond by telling you about his cholesterol or blood pressure. Someone else might refer to songs of the heart – love songs. We often think of the heart as the seat of emotions. When we ask “How is your heart?” we mean, “How are you feeling?” However, in the ancient world the heart was often seen as the seat of thought, not emotions. It was understood to be the spot within us where we make decisions.1
What does it mean to be pure in heart? The Greek word for pure is katharos (kath’ ah rōs). It means something clean, unpolluted, or genuine.
When we say something is pure, we think of something without a flaw. If that is what Jesus meant, then no one will ever see God because no one is perfect. Would Jesus describe a category that no one could fill? Seems unlikely.
While the Bible speaks of the importance of having a pure heart, it rarely describes what that means. However, we do find descriptions of those whose hearts are impure. In Matthew 15 Jesus says that out of the impure heart emerge evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. Perhaps some politicians come to mind.
A colleague points out some of the dark things that “clamor for space in our hearts… typical sins like: greed. I’ll make time for God once I have enough money. Pride. I am too sophisticated – too smart to spend time on this God thing. Lust. Augustine confessed that there was a time in his life when he was too much of a player to have time for God. He famously prayed, ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.’”2
“Those who are pure in heart are the opposite of those with unclean hearts. They have good intentions that manifest themselves in noble actions…they speak the truth. They preserve lives rather than destroying them. They are generous and selfless.”3
However, we dare not confuse the pure in heart with the joyless. They are not stern and puritanical. It is important to remember that Jesus was speaking to poor people who lived under the harsh occupation of the Romans. And yet, he was not always deadly serious.
According to John’s gospel, Jesus performed his first miracle at a party. A young couple got married, and as was the custom, they invited family and friends to a grand celebration. Kate Bowler points out that “the evening went well until the couple committed the social blunder of running out of wine. Jesus could have delivered a severe sermon: Enough revelry! Indulgence is the enemy! But instead he took jars of water and transformed them into an even better wine than they had enjoyed to that point.”4 And, according to the text, he made gallons of it.
What does it mean to be pure in heart? Jesus does not provide us with a concise definition. However, when we peruse the gospels, we find a few clues. For instance, it appears that Jesus held up the disciple Nathaniel as one who was on his way to possessing a pure heart. Pointing at Nathaniel, Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” (John 1:47)
Jesus was pointing to character. A person who is pure in heart is not deceitful or crafty or duplicitous.
Presbyterian minister Scott Black Johnston reminds us that “At this moment there are people in various places throughout the world who are being paid to sit at a computer screen and fabricate stories for social media. These so-called troll farms have one purpose: to stir up trouble. Troll farms are diabolical in their intent, but savvy when it comes to human nature. They know the toxic power of anger. Pour vitriol on the ties that bind, and entire societies can unravel.”5
It seems to me that people are angrier than at any other point in my lifetime. Johnston has a friend who says that “she sends a contribution to her favorite charity every time a certain politician makes her angry. One day he asked her, ‘How’s it going?’ She laughed and said ‘I am so furious I am going to go bankrupt!’”6
Anger at injustice is legitimate. We ought to be angry about violence, prejudice, economic injustice, deceit, and the destruction of God’s creation. However, if anger is our chief pilot, we risk becoming mean-spirited and unforgiving – not to mention the toll it will take on our health.
To be pure in heart is to be committed to honesty, integrity, respect for others, and rather than spending energy trying to top others, finding joy in lifting others.
Leo Tolstoy wrote, “In our world everyone thinks of changing humanity, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Of course, to be pure in heart, we must embrace personal transformation.
To be pure in heart is to have a humble spirit that inhibits you from thinking about yourself all the time. The irony of this beatitude is that if you think of yourself as pure in heart, it is evidence that you are not. Recognizing the ways we fall short of a pure heart – anger, greed, lust, a desire for revenge, and so on – is a prerequisite for inching closer to a pure heart.
To be pure in heart is to yearn for God’s life-giving energy to fill us with purpose. It is to wake up to the grandeur of creation and to be overwhelmed by gratitude that we are alive – that we are something rather than nothing. It is a grateful heart that we exist and that we live in a world of possibilities.
A colleague tells about Valerie Kaur, a 40-year-old woman who has degrees from Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. “If there’s anything more impressive than her large brain it is her huge heart. Her heart is shaped by her faith. She is not Presbyterian; she is not even Christian. She is a Sikh and she remembers when her best friend in middle school told her how sad she was that Valerie would not be going to heaven. The friend informed her that only Christians go to heaven. She had it all figured out. She knew what people deserved in the end, and told her so.”
“Years later, Valerie became aware that some folks, most of whom thought of themselves as Christian, could not wait for Sikhs to receive their damnation. There was a rash of beatings, even murders of Sikhs. She had an uncle who ran a gas station. While he was planting flowers to beautify his business, a man drove up behind him and shot him in the back.”
“Men who are Sikhs wear turbans and this was just a few weeks after 9/11. Many Americans – knowing very little about people from other parts of the world – just knew they were not like us and so they do not deserve what we deserve.”
“Such acts of violence can make you bitter and it no doubt had that effect on many. But Valerie Kaur chose mercy. She labors for what she calls ‘revolutionary love.’ She says her grandfather, whom she calls Papa Ji, taught her this as a tenant of her faith. He taught her that she should endeavor to ‘see no one as a stranger, but rather as a part of your life story – a part of yourself that you don’t know yet.’”
“In her book, See No Stranger, she writes, ‘Love is dangerous business, Papa Ji explained. If you choose to see no stranger, then you must love people even when they do not love you.”7
I suspect that is the kind of person Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” He did not say that the pure in heart must become perfect. Rather, to be pure in heart is to say “Yes” to the spiritual adventure that is ours to live: to love – even those who are hard to love – to seek what is right and good for all people, and to spread the seeds of peace wherever we are.
Become aware of God’s presence with joy and gratitude
Become aware of God’s presence with joy
Become aware of God’s presence
Become aware of God
Gracious God, Creator of the vast universe, yet mindful of each molecule, you peer into our depths and know all there is to know about us. You know what fires our passion and what snuffs out our flame; you know what keeps us stirring at night and what stokes our courage; you know what drags us down and what hikes our hope. You know not only who we are, but more importantly the person you wish us to become. Help us to grasp the greatness you expect of us and arouse within us the determination to live into your dream.
Gracious God, as you called prophets of old to speak your word and to do your will, help each of us to gain a sense of where you are urging us to go and what you are challenging us to do. Each of us is your unique creation, and you call each of us to specific actions given our particular situation. Pry open our eyes, uncork our ears and soften our hearts to the people around us – the ones we love and whose joys and tears mix with our own. Make us mindful of the ways we can help one another flourish. Help us also to be alert to the ones whose paths cross ours only for a brief time – the ones beyond our inner circle or who come into our lives only for a season. Help us to be awake to each person we brush up against, knowing that so often you beckon us through human need – both our needs and the needs of others. Each of us needs love and kindness, respect and appreciation, understanding and forgiveness, happiness and hope. Help us to cultivate these traits in ourselves as we give ourselves to others.
Now, hear us as we join our voices together in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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