March 4, 2010

Theology of the Body: Purity of Heart


John Paul II

1. The analysis of purity is an indispensable completion of the words Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, which our present reflections are centered on. When explaining the correct meaning of the commandment, "You shall not commit adultery," Christ appealed to the interior man. At the same time he specified the fundamental dimension of purity that marks the relations between man and woman both in marriage and outside it. The words, "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28), express what is opposed to purity. At the same time, these words demand the purity which, in the Sermon on the Mount, is included in the list of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8). In this way Christ appealed to the human heart. He called upon it and did not accuse it, as we have already clarified.

Ritual ablutions

2. Christ sees in the heart, in man's inner self, the source of purity—but also of moral impurity—in the fundamental and most generic sense of the word. That is confirmed, for example, by the answer he gave to the Pharisees, who were scandalized by the fact that his disciples "transgress the tradition of the elders. For they do not wash their hands when they eat" (Mt 15:2). Jesus then said to those present: "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth defiles a man" (Mt 15:11). Answering Peter's question, he explained these words to his disciples as follows: "What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (cf. Mt 15:18-20; also Mk 7:20-23).

When we say "purity" or "pure," in the first meaning of these words, we indicate what contrasts with what is dirty. "To dirty" means "to make filthy," "to pollute." That referred to the various spheres of the physical world. For example, we talk of a dirty road or a dirty room; we also talk of polluted air. In the same way man can be filthy, when his body is not clean. The body must be washed to remove dirt.

The Old Testament tradition attributed great importance to ritual ablutions, for example, to wash one's hands before eating, which the above-mentioned text spoke of. Many detailed prescriptions concerned the ablutions of the body in relation to sexual impurity, understood in the exclusively physiological sense, to which we have referred previously (cf. Lv 15). According to the medical science of the time, the various ablutions may have corresponded to hygienic prescriptions. Since they were imposed in God's name and contained in the sacred books of the Old Testament legislation, their observance indirectly acquired a religious meaning. They were ritual ablutions and, in the life of the people of the old covenant, they served ritual "purity."

Purity in the moral sense

3. In relation to the aforesaid juridico-religious tradition of the old covenant, an erroneous way of understanding moral purity developed.(1) It was often taken in the exclusively exterior and material sense. In any case, an explicit tendency to this interpretation spread. Christ opposed it radically. Nothing from outside makes one filthy, no "material" dirt makes one impure in the moral, that is, interior sense. No ablution, not even of a ritual nature, is capable in itself of producing moral purity. This has its exclusive source within man. It comes from the heart.

Probably the respective prescriptions in the Old Testament (for example, those found in Leviticus 15:16-24; 18:lff., or 12:1-5) served, in addition to hygienic purposes, to attribute a certain dimension of interiority to what is corporeal and sexual in the human person. In any case, Christ took good care not to connect purity in the moral (ethical) sense with physiology and its organic processes. In the light of the words of Matthew 15:18-20, quoted above, none of the aspects of sexual "dirtiness," in the strictly bodily, biophysiological sense, falls by itself into the definition of purity or impurity in the moral (ethical) sense...

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