Listening to Jesus About the Human Heart

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 7:21-23

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”

Mark 7:21-23 rsv


Do you know what the Bible means by the heart? It’s not the same as the definition found in a medical handbook. Heart in the Scriptures does not mean merely the physical organ that pumps blood. Heart means the inmost center of our lives, the essential person that we are. Remember how God says to His people, “If with all your heart you truly seek me, you will ever surely find me” (see Jer. 29:13). We’re to love the Lord our God, we’re told, with all our hearts. We believe Him in our hearts. Those who are single in heart, Jesus says, shall see God. Those who can dwell in His presence are those who have clean hands and a pure heart.

The heart is that central place in all of us to which God looks. It’s where all our experience of Him is rooted. It’s the inner fountain from which all the streams of our life flow forth. Heart means that inner center in us beneath all pretense and deception. It’s the real you, the real me. What we are in our hearts is what we really are in the sight of God.

That’s what makes it so shocking when Jesus says this about the heart. Listen: “ . . . from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” Think of that: all that comes from within human hearts, hearts like yours and mine. How then can a heart be cleansed? How is it ever possible to have a pure heart?

That’s the kind of question Jesus is dealing with in His controversy with the scribes and Pharisees here in the Gospel According to Mark, chapter 7. What is it to be defiled, to be unclean, and what do we do about it?


The religious authorities found fault with Jesus’ disciples because they sometimes ate without carefully washing their hands first. For the Pharisees, this was not merely a matter of sanitation; it involved character and commitment. If you didn’t go through with the prescribed washings before a meal, you were viewed as a bad person, lacking in righteousness, disloyal to God’s covenant. For the strictest of the Pharisees, purifying themselves meant washing not only their hands but also their various utensils: cups, pots and vessels of bronze. All of this was serious business to them, one of the leading marks of true piety. They ask indignantly, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” They felt that Jesus’ disciples were religiously impure because of their neglect.

But Jesus rejects their view. Listen: “Hear me,” He says, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him.” In other words, nothing we eat can possibly make our hearts unclean, make our lives defiled, render us unacceptable to God. For Jesus, purity of heart has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of foods we eat, nothing whatever to do with elaborate external washings. The reason is that food and drink, though vital to sustain our bodies, do not affect the inmost springs of our lives.

When His disciples asked Him about this later, He developed the thought more fully: “Are you also without understanding?” He asked. “Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” When food goes through the digestive system, nourishing elements are assimilated by the body and the rest is eliminated as waste. All of this is merely psychiological. It has nothing to do with the condition of a person’s inner life, with the state of his or her heart. In fact, Jesus could tell the very persons who were so scrupulous about these washings that though they honored God with their lips, their hearts were far from Him.

The Lord does not mean to say by this that cleanliness is unimportant. Still less that we shouldn’t be concerned about good nutrition. Contaminated foods can obviously cause disease and the wrong kind of diet can undermine health. The point Jesus makes, however, is that our relationship to God is not determined by how we eat or what we eat or even the quantities we consume. Nothing I take into my body can make me more or less acceptable to God because nothing I eat or drink can change my basic personhood. It cannot touch my heart.

I wish that everyone hearing my voice today could understand this, could appropriate this truth. There is so much said and written today about good nutrition, about cholesterol and food additives, that eating and drinking can begin to loom for people as a moral issue. Many in our society not only feel uncomfortable at being overweight; they’re under pressure from others to feel guilty, as though the slender and the trim were the more godly, as though obesity were a cardinal sin. How many of the eating disorders that young adults suffer with are related to this tendency to assign moral judgments to matters of diet? Don’t believe that, urges Jesus. No food you eat, however prepared, can make you better or worse in God’s sight. Meat and drink cannot change the inner springs of anyone’s personality. You aren’t defiled by what you eat.

According to Jesus, real defilement comes about in quite a different way. Listen again: “There’s nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him, but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” And He goes on to develop that thought: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery,” and all these other evils. Defilement, Jesus insists, is from the inside out. It’s what comes forth from within us that makes us unclean because that proceeds, He says, from the heart.

Evil thoughts, for example, defile us. They originate within our minds and are harbored there. Acts of fornication, theft, murder, and adultery begin as passions in the heart which then are acted out in life. Coveting, deceit, envy and pride are attitudes of the heart. Even the foolishness, the slander, the deceit that we speak represents the outflow of our inner life. The heart, you see, has to do with character. A person’s inmost thoughts, motives, attitudes toward others and toward God, along with the outward acts which bring to light those inward dispositions.

Jesus is saying to His critics, “Don’t worry about these external details. Don’t be so concerned about ritual cleanliness. What really matters is what we most deeply believe within us, the major motivations that shape our lives and the patterns of conduct that flow from them. These are the things that make us unclean, that incur guilt, that alienate us from God and from each other. It’s that inward defilement that you and I ought to be most concerned about.”

The heart is like the root and trunk of a tree. The branches that the tree puts forth, the leaves, the blossoms, the fruit: all of that is a direct result of the kind of tree it is. Again, the heart is like a fountain. All the water that flows forth from that fountain, however far it may go, is like the source from which it comes. If the spring itself is impure, everything that comes forth from it will have the same impurity. In a similar way, all the thoughts, motives, attitudes and actions of our lives arise from and are tinctured by the state of our inner life, by what we are in our hearts.

Now we see how people can be superficially religious and yet be far from God, how they can be careful about details of behavior and still live wickedly. External rituals cannot change the heart.


That brings us to the all-important question: What can be done about a defiled heart? If our inmost being is impure, if the central source of our behavior is wrong, and if the outward fruit of our lives is constantly separating us from God, what can we do? We feel ready to cry out as the apostle Paul did once, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

It’s important to realize at this point that Jesus was not challenging the written Word of God here but the oral traditions which had been superimposed upon it. The Pharisees asked, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” In response, Jesus charges them with leaving the commandment of God and holding fast the traditions of men. Why, we wonder, were these elaborate traditions added to the written Word? The attempt at first may have been praiseworthy, to clarify the law’s demands, to make practical applications of it for everyday life. The effect, however, was often quite different. The oral law often appears as an attempt by human beings to gain control of and manipulate the law of God. That law, when we take it seriously, when we let our consciences feel its inner demand, is a devastating thing because it shows us how far we’ve fallen short, how much in us rebels against God’s standard. So our tendency always is to blunt its effects. Instead of allowing the law to show us that we are sinners, who can only live with God on the basis of His forgiveness, we try to make the law establish our own righteousness, show us to be always in the right.

We try to make the law something we can live with on some other terms than the forgiveness of sins, something that fits in with our self-righteousness and complacency. We come to substitute for God’s law a kind of human legalism. We spell out details of proper observance. We set up our own codes, then having complied with them, we manage to blur the fact that we have ignored the main thrust of God’s law. What a trap!

All of us who try to make the law prove us right end by modifying or perverting it. It’s our thinly veiled attempt to escape from the law, to void its authority. We learn to obey it technically even while we disregard it essentially.

The traditions of the elders about foods and washings didn’t touch the problem of inner uncleanness. They only masked it.

The way to deal with a defiled heart is not by pretending there’s nothing wrong with it. If an apple is rotten at the core, you can’t make it a better apple by painting it red, can you? If human life is flawed at the center, you can’t improve it by polishing the surface. The only way is the way of confession, of brokenheartedness over our sins, of turning away from them to God. And that becomes possible because the kingdom of God has drawn near to us, because the Lord has come in Jesus His Son to save us from our sins. Jesus bears the load of our guilt. He takes upon Himself the stroke of our condemnation. He dies in our place so that we can be forgiven. Through trusting in Him and His perfect work for us, we are forgiven, we are justified, we are accepted completely before God. And more than that, we are given the gift of His Holy Spirit to make us new on the inside, to give us more and more clean hearts. That’s the gospel, friends. We don’t need to pretend we’re something we’re not. We don’t need to develop elaborate kinds of ritual to prove that we’re all right. In Jesus Christ, God accepts us just as we are and then undertakes to make us new from the inside out. In Christ, it’s becoming a new creation. How happy, how thankful I am, to be able to offer that gospel, that good news, to you today. I invite you to trust in Jesus Christ, to receive Him, the living Lord, into your life. He – He alone – can deal with our inmost problem at the source. New hearts for old is what Jesus offers. Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Father, give us the honesty to acknowledge that our problem goes deep, that our hearts are wrong and then may we find in Jesus Christ and His transforming grace the answer to our deepest need. In Jesus’ name. Amen.