Maintaining Purity of Heart

Homily for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 29, 2021

Someone once asked the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, what she considered as the first sign of civilization. She cited the discovery of a 15,000-year-old broken femur bone (thigh bone) that had healed. The discovery of the broken bone that healed meant that humans were no longer subject to the instinctual laws of nature because someone stopped to care for an injured person. Food and water were provided for the time needed to mend the bone. A new mind and a new heart dawned. Instead of leaving a person behind, people showed compassion and care, enabling the human community to thrive.

Our readings today remind us that to fully experience God’s love, we must observe God’s commandments. They also remind us that living a life that is holy helps keep us close to God (to live in communion with God and to be compassionate people for others). But, to live a life that is holy, God’s word must be rooted in our hearts and lived in our actions.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the Pharisees question Jesus about his disciples not following ritual hand washing traditions—some of the 600 man-made laws created by the Jewish people. Jesus points out that the Pharisees were focused on externals (like ritual hand washing) and had lost sight of the bigger picture. Jesus corrects the Pharisees, telling them that they “disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

The point Jesus makes to the crowd is that “Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” Jesus explains that defilement comes from hearts and those defiled hearts endanger other hearts. So, we must strive to maintain a purity of heart and not just follow external rules.

So, how do we maintain a purity of heart? That is the question of the day. Our Second Reading, from St. James, provides some insight—and some inspiration. 

Here are four areas of focus to maintain purity of heart:

  1. We need to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude. We must remember what St. James wrote: “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above.” We need to give thanks each day for God’s gifts and be generous stewards of what God has given us. We should start each day with prayers of praise and ask ourselves: 

Who are the injured and “broken” people in my community who need my gifts? My attention?

  • We must be doers of the Word, not just hearers. As the philosophers tell us, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Just as we take time at the beginning of the day to give praise, we need to take time at the end of each day to have an open and honest discernment of our life. We should ask ourselves:

What evidence (actions, not words) do I have of being Christ to others today? What were the times others were Christ to me? And what were the times I turned away from God—by sin or omission—and need to ask God for forgiveness?

  • We must care for others. Trusting in God’s grace, we need to reflect on how we can use our God-given gifts of time, talent, and treasure to care for others. Our ancient ancestor—the “first responder” who stopped 15,000 years ago to care for the person with the broken bone—demonstrated what it means to be civilized and caring. We need to ask ourselves:

How can we help promote an increased sense of community in our world, in our nation, and in our home? How can we support the community-building efforts of our parish and our archdiocese?

  • We must live a life that is rooted in love. For the past 10 years I have had the privilege of working for the Society of Mary (the Marianists), helping their network of Marianist-sponsored schools and retreat centers provide quality Catholic education in the Marianist tradition. The Marianist tradition is rooted in the love of Mary, our Mother, and demonstrated by how she lived her life.

Mary, as the first disciple and the formator of Jesus, demonstrated her love by both words and action. Just reflect on the story of Mary and you will see a living, and loving example of what it means to have purity of heart.

And as we approach the altar of the Lord in Eucharist, let us open our whole selves to the One who can create a pure heart and a steadfast spirit within us.

  • At the Annunciation, Mary tells God “Yes, let it be done to me by your word.” A magnificent balance of word and action.
  • At the Visitation, Mary demonstrates care for others as she visits her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with child.
  • When Jesus is Lost in the Temple, Mary doesn’t understand her son’s actions, so she ponders them in her heart, trusting in her son.
  • At the Crucifixion, when most of the disciples abandon her son—people who promised to give their life for Jesus—it is Mary who is at the foot of the cross, steadfast in her love and devotion.
  • At The Assumption, Mary receives her reward for living a holy, faithful life as she is assumed, body and soul, into heaven.

Jesus tells us that the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, your soul, and your mind; and secondly to love your neighbor as yourself. So let us pray that all we do to serve the Lord reflects God’s love and mercy: May our actions reflect our words.

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