Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand?
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (NRSV)
I guess the view from heaven offers both fresh and confronting perspectives. As Australian theologian Athol Gill suggested in his provocative book entitled: The Upside–Down Kingdom, Jesus habitually looked at life from new angles. In our reading Jesus does not eliminate but rather turns the common understanding of defilement on its head.
I’d have thought Jesus spoke quite clearly: ‘…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ It seems straight forward enough. But then the disciples ask about the ‘parable’.
This concept is so foreign they think it must be a riddle requiring inside information!
So, Jesus explains: Defilement is not about food that goes in. It is about the stuff that comes out. They have it all upside-down, or perhaps more accurately, inside-out.
The list of the product that ‘comes out’ of the human heart is sobering, embarrassing, confronting, and is not nearly as removed from our condition as we would like. ‘Evil’ is not a word we easily sit with – and even less when it is seen as stemming from within. We’d rather speak of an evil ‘out there’ – embodied in something or someone else.
But the devil is not the only source of evil Jesus’ gospel identifies. What Jesus speaks of here is birthed in us. It is ‘…from the human heart, that evil intentions come…’
Intention can seem far from action. In fact we often use the word to express how unlikely a thought is to manifest. But Jesus suggests that thoughts habitually grow and become more. They are a source, a spring, a well – and they have a habit of spilling over.
The more I sit with this passage, the more I am convinced that it does not leave the only possible product of the human heart as evil. If evil intentions have their overflow, surely the same can be said of good intentions.
If the human heart is a source of action, surely Jesus’ words urge a guarding, a protecting, and a shielding of the inner life. As St Paul so aptly said:
…whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9 NRSV).