Heart Surgery

Christ Pantocrator, 13th century Serbian icon

18th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday (Year II)

Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14

After the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand, and numerous signs and wonders, Jesus was causing quite a stir. Without summoning, this ordinary son of a carpenter in Galilee compelled the most elite members of Israel to journey all the way from Jerusalem to ask him a question.

Some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal.”

The question was not about hygiene, but about the very foundations of Judaism. Levitical laws and tradition drew a sharp line between what was “clean” and “unclean,” and developed complex regulations for ceremonial washing in order to approach the all-holy God. Failure to comply with these rules gave the impression of impiety or sacrilege. 

Tunnel vision caused by prolonged squinting at the fine print of the law and centuries of accretions made the lawyers forget the basics. In large print, on tablets of stone, Moses had presented the Decalogue with natural precepts like, “Honor your father and your mother.” 

Legal sophistry found loopholes to avoid the care of elderly parents:

But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God,” need not honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (Matthew 15:5)

The Pharisees and scribes made it legal to dedicate money and property to the Temple with this unloving intention. God was being used. Such sophistries drove a wedge between love of God and love of neighbor. The first commandment was used to violate the second.

The divine physician had Israel on the operating table for heart surgery, without any anesthesia.

“Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: 
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)

He summoned the crowd and said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles the man; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” 

Food and ceremonial laws were external rituals that did not reach the depths of the heart, our “hidden center… the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2563). The indestructible temple of the Holy Spirit is the human heart, the first place that must be cleansed and nourished. 

Deep, authentic conversion is an arduous process requiring painful heart surgery. Far easier is a program of superficial rituals that only cleanses the outside of the cup. Few have the courage to face themselves. 

Then his disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He said in reply, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

Any law or practice that violates the single precept of love of God and love of neighbor “will be uprooted.” 

The Good Shepherd laid down his life to rescue the least lamb fallen into a pit, mangled alongside their blind shepherds in the hollow.

The scribes and Pharisees were to be let alone to respond to grace. As we are one Body in Christ, their heart surgery is our very own.


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