What Makes Us Sick?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 22
August 29, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) strongly believes that junk food is dangerous to one's health. You don't need to be a foodie, the agency says, but you shouldn't be a junkie either. But in today's scripture reading, Jesus seems to disagree. He has a radical theory about what truly makes us sick.

Jesus makes an interesting and arguable assertion in verses 14 and 15 of today's reading: "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."

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, strongly disagrees,1 as do countless dieticians and nutritionists. What goes in the mouths of Americans on a daily basis, making the U.S. one of the most obese nations on the planet (12th out of 191),2 does indeed "defile" us, according to these experts.

Some food is bad for us, and if ingested regularly or to excess can seriously mess us up. The list might surprise you: Fruit juice, soy protein, farmed salmon, sugar alcohols, microwave popcorn, margarine, shrimp, vegetable oils, table salt, artificial sweeteners, fat-free and low-fat milk, Agave nectar, canned green beans and pancakes for breakfast.3

Pancakes? Fortunately, there's no ban on bacon.

Some foods have been banned from the U.S.: Haggis, Japanese puffer fish, shark fins, Ackee fruit, Beluga caviar, Queen conch, sea turtles, Kinder Surprise eggs, sassafras oil, Chilean sea bass, absinthe, horse meat and foie gras.4

So, Jesus' comment that "whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile" notwithstanding,5 all of us know that if we want to be healthy, we'd best limit ourselves to one double-cheese-bacon-avocado-with-mayo burger a week. Or maybe one a month?

What, then, does Jesus really mean? He surely cannot mean what we think he means, because we're quite sure that he himself did not eat certain foods. He might have had pancakes, hash browns and scrambled eggs for breakfast, but not bacon . Didn't happen.

So we know that Jesus understood that there are some things you don't eat.

Even the disciples were confused.6 They did not understand that Jesus' point was that what goes into "the stomach, and goes out into the sewer" does not truly make us sick. The disease from which we suffer comes from a different source.7

The disciples learn that Dr. Jesus is not a gastroenterologist but rather a cardiologist. "It is from within, from the human heart , that evil intentions come," he says (emphasis added).

What makes us sick?

The context is sinister. Some Pharisees and scribes "just happened" to come upon Jesus and his disciples on the sabbath. More likely, they were on a fact-finding mission to gather intel on a suspected revolutionary. They had come from Jerusalem, which is like saying that they'd come from Langley, Scotland Yard or the Kremlin. Jerusalem was Kosher City in those days. Religious, ritual and dietary laws were rigidly enforced. They weren't dressed in fedoras or trench coats, and they confronted Jesus in broad daylight rather than zero dark 30. But it didn't matter. Jesus knew who they were and what they were up to.

They criticized the disciples, and since what disciples do reflects the training and teaching of the master, whatever crimes they could attribute to the disciples, they could also pin on Jesus. They pounced: "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" They were referring to the ritual washing of hands, pots and pans and cooking utensils.

Jesus didn't hesitate. He called them hypocrites right to their faces, charging that they had forgotten what truly makes a person sick . While the Pharisees were talking about food that goes in one end and out the other (see v. 19), Jesus was referring to soul sickness.

Dr. Jesus was troubled by all the diseases of his day, and no one seemed to notice: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly - to name a few.

These illnesses did not come from a failure to be ritually pure or from unclean foods. These sicknesses come from the heart . "All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person," Jesus said.

Here is the Great Physician and Diagnostician at work. "Those who are well have no need of a physician," he said, "but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."8

You've got heart trouble, he told the Pharisees and scribes, and it's not caused by something you ate; it's caused by something you are .

The origin of evil

Unfortunately, the last verse of our reading leaves us wanting more. Jesus says, "All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." But Jesus fails to give us one huge and critical piece of information: If evil comes from the heart, how did evil get into our hearts in the first place?

Jesus makes it plain, at least on one level. Evil is in the heart, and it didn't get there because we binged on a bucket of Blue Bonnet ice cream.

So how does evil sneak into our souls?

Perhaps we should pause to review what the Bible means by "heart."

For the ancients, the heart was everything: it was a center for physical activity as well as for emotional and moral expression. The word occurs more than a thousand times in the Bible, and as such it is probably the most common anthropological metaphor in scripture. Often, the words soul and heart are interchangeable, the soul being a metaphysical description of the functions of a very corporeal organ. But this is not always the case, although in our reading it appears that Jesus is indeed using the word heart in the sense of soul.

One interesting aspect of the ancient understanding of heart is its inaccessibility . It's deep in the chest and hidden and protected by the rib cage. The ancients used to eat in order to strengthen the heart for physical activity, or they would pound their chests to stimulate the heart, much as men and women do in China today when out for a walk and exercise.

This inaccessibility also referred to the difficulty of knowing the heart and in reaching the heart for the truth. David the psalmist wrote, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."9 The prophet Jeremiah noted the difficulty of trusting the heart: "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse - who can understand it?"10

This, then, is how Jesus and the people of his day regarded the heart. But the big questions remain: How does evil get into the heart, is it possible to keep evil out, and finally, can evil, once in the heart, ever be removed?

Keeping evil out

How does evil get into the heart? Jesus tells us that it's not what we eat. We know this intuitively. Yet, we cannot seem to agree as to how evil takes up residence in our souls.

Some say, like Saint Augustine, sin is a factory default setting. We're born with the seed of sin in our souls. This argument, known as the doctrine of original sin, was made popular by the bishop of Hippo, citing certain passages in the writings of the apostle Paul. Humans, he said, are born with a sinful heart, and this explains why we do sinful things.

Other theologians believe that evil enters the human experience through free will. We make bad choices.

Still others believe that Satan is the responsible party. Many people like this explanation; it sort of removes personal responsibility from ourselves and lays it at the feet of the devil.

Bottom line: No one can say with certainty how evil gets down there, deep in our hearts. But it frequently does.

Is it possible to keep evil out? The short answer is: Probably not. Saint Paul insists that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."11

That said, we certainly don't need to make it easy, do we? Sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein once quipped, "Yield to temptation; it may not pass your way again." But the Bible says, "Why make room for the devil?" Why use our freedom in Christ "as an opportunity for self-indulgence"? Instead we could "through love become slaves to one another."12

Although there was only one sinless person, it's possible to live a sin-free minute, hour or even day. In fact, many of us probably go through an entire day without consciously yielding to temptation or doing anything that violates God's law, natural law, moral or civil law.

Yet, who knows what havoc we've created by unnoticed or unintended actions or words? Who among us has not discovered well after the fact, that we'd messed up without knowing it - sort of like the guy who leaves the bathroom at Walmart with toilet paper trailing behind him.

The scatological reference is apt, because it comes pretty close to the contempt that Jesus felt for the self-righteous pride of those who believed themselves to be perfect.

Can evil, once in the heart, ever be removed? Yes, sort of. The apostle Paul encourages us when he notes that by faith in Christ, we have undergone a complete heart transplant, perhaps without even knowing it. With a new heart comes a new nature, and this new nature, the apostle argues, is well-disposed toward the things of God.13

It's a faith thing, of course. A God thing. We've got to believe it, or it doesn't work. But it doesn't hurt to ask for the radical surgery option - which is perhaps what we should do as we bring this discussion to a close.

Let's use the words of the psalmist: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me."14