Jesus and the Pure in Heart

In Matthew 5:8, Jesus gives what I suspect is the loftiest, most mysterious, and least attainable of all his beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” And yet, in its very simplicity is the key to everything. It’s the key that allows us to transcend a religion of rules and prohibitions, guilt and shame, judging and punishment.

When first approaching this statement, one might well ask, what the heck does it mean to be pure in heart? Is that even possible? On the contrary, isn’t it true that an important facet of spiritual maturity is the growing awareness of the deeply mixed motives of one’s heart? Let’s face it. Even when we’re doing good and appearing good, we’re usually really satisfying selfish motives. We try to be good at work so that we might be promoted, or at least avoid trouble with the boss. We are on our best behavior at church or in the community because we want people to like us and to think well of us. (The better gauge is how we behave at home, because usually we don’t hold ourselves to as high a standard there.) The prophet Jeremiah1 talks about how we turn away from God’s pure, fresh living spring water and depend on our own “broken cisterns.” These cracked water reservoirs constantly leak out our energy and good intentions. So is purity of heart even something that can be achieved in this life? Or is it just a worthy goal, which we know we can’t attain until heaven?

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

– Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” To me, this is an incredibly profound statement. It calls to mind a brief story of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.2 Jesus and his disciples are visiting the home of the sisters, Mary and Martha, whom we met a few blog posts ago (in Jesus and the Brokenhearted). Jesus is teaching his disciples, and Mary is sitting at his feet with the other disciples, listening in rapt attention to his words.

But Martha (who has got to be the older sister) is working hard in the kitchen. Literally, the text says that she “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” I understand that totally! When I’m hosting a crowd in my home, I am the same way. I get anxious and distracted, trying to keep tabs of a dozen things at once. When do I need to take out the main dish and put in the rolls; put ice in the glasses and the butter on the table so that everything is ready at the same time? Who needs something? What am I forgetting? And sure — if there’s someone there who I think ought to be helping me, I not above feeling — and perhaps voicing — some resentment.

This is exactly what Martha does, in a way that makes women the world over identify with her. She addresses Jesus sharply: “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving by myself? Tell her to get off her duff and help me!”

What would my life be like
if my One Desire was to know,
love, and become like Jesus?

But Jesus’ reply is as insightful as it is surprising. He responds to Martha with gentle compassion: “Martha, Martha. You are worried, distracted and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Notice that Jesus contrasts the Many Things that consume Martha’s attention and desires with the One Thing of Mary’s attention and desire. Mary was absorbed by a laser focus on Jesus. For a Christian, that’s the One Thing. What would my life be like if my One Desire was to know, love, and become like Jesus? I don’t mean that I would neglect everyday duties and necessities or people. But what if, in the midst of my daily life, my motives for everything I did were like Jesus’ motives — simply to love God and to love people? 3 Would I be bothered about other people’s criticism or approval? Would I feel stressed that I’m not doing enough or not doing it perfectly?

LOVE is the One Thing. When we embrace love, we are rejecting fear,4 including fear of others and what they think of us. Suddenly, another of Jesus’ great promises begins to make sense:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?
Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.
I’ll show you how to take a real rest.
Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it.
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn
to live freely and lightly.”

-Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30, MSG

This is an example of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” that Oliver Wendell Holmes referenced, in which all the religious rules and regulations are made simple and organic, even joyful and easy. Just LOVE.

1 Jeremiah 2:13

2 Luke 10:38-42

3 Matthew 22:35-40

4 I John 4:18

Next post: Jesus and the Peacemakers

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