The Heart of the Problem

By Paul Koch

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So here we are again. One more time I’m here to tell you things that you already know. I don’t have any secret insight, no special revelation from God, just a reading from Mark’s Gospel (7:14-23) that speaks a truth we all know full well. This text gets quite literally to the heart of humanity’s great struggle. The problem of mankind is obvious; oh we try and make it complicated but at its core it is simple. We are sinners. You are a sinner! See, when I call you a sinner you don’t even flinch. Apparently you’re familiar with the idea. I don’t have to follow you around with a tape recorder. I don’t have to examine your motives or question your secret thoughts. Yet I know that you are all sinners, conceived and born into sin.

Now the fact that this doesn’t strike you as shocking news means that you are well acquainted with this understanding of who you are. You are, as they say, only human; you are a fallen creature of God. We know the disobedience of our first parents. We know the treachery of the serpent in the garden and the mess left behind. We know that we do not live as the children of God ought to live; we don’t measure up to the standards of the Almighty. And it’s not just that we feel it in our own bodies. It’s not just that we wrestle within ourselves to be better than we are; our whole world groans and cries out regarding how deep the tear of sin has wrecked this creation.

There’s Alzheimer’s and cancer and heart disease that claims those we know and love. There are financial distresses that threaten the security of families great and small. We turn on the TV and we see a world that is more concerned with a dentist who shot a lion in Africa than they are with the selling of aborted baby parts by Planned Parenthood. The distance between mankind and true holiness, love and purity, seems to be an ever widening gap. And we wonder if we sinners can ever find our way back to our Creator.

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This is where religion steps in. Religion with its established rules and regulations comes to the service of a wandering and lost humanity offering, not promising, that they have a way back to the holy and pure God. They promote a relief from the sin and brokenness that we see in our world and feel in our own lives and experience in our relationships. Since there is so much that happens in this world which is beyond our control, most religions focus on what we can control. We can control much of what we do, we can control what we eat or drink or where we worship or how we worship. We can control the way we treat other people, the way we care for the hurting in our lives, the way we speak to one another, so we focus on these things as a means to overcome our depravity.

Now ancient Israel had, no doubt, the greatest system for controlling our brokenness. To be honest, their system was so good because it wasn’t really for everyone. It was a religion established for the chosen people of God. How did they become such a people? Well, it may seem obvious but God chose them; God did the great work of bringing His broken humanity into a renewed relationship with Him by choosing them. Then He established a method of keeping them in that relationship. So they had a great system of what they could and could not eat, how they were to dress, how their relationships were to be established, reconciled, and dissolved. You could keep track of your deeds; your actions establish if you are clean or unclean, according to the law. So here we find a religion par excellence that promised a way back to what we have fallen from.

But if you are not a Jew, and if you do not follow kosher dietary laws, do not worry! Mankind has many other options when it comes to monitoring what we can control in order to address the sin that afflicts us all. High on the list, of course, are the great rituals of the church, the ancient worship of God’s people, or even it’s more contemporary forms.  Whether we stand, sit, or kneel; whether we raise our hands and shout “Alleluia” or fold them in humility, we are given something we can control. So we can hear from those who say that a certain form of worship is a way to move closer to God. If we break out all the smells and bells, if we can trace our ordinations back to St. Pete himself, then we are closer. Or if we sing from the heart, if we stand and move with joy, then we can be sure that we are on the right track.

Altar boys arrive in procession during a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI to commemorate cardinals and bishops who died this year, at the Vatican

But such religion doesn’t come only from the church. It is found all over the place. Now people may not always articulate it as a way back to God, but it is certainly a way to control the sin in our lives. This ranges from not hanging out at the bar, to quitting smoking, or being the designated driver. It can cover everything from good manners to volunteering at the animal shelter. We are told that by engaging in certain activities and by avoiding others we are better people, we are improving ourselves, we are a better example to our children and better citizens as a whole. And who could argue with that? If we control what we can control for the better, isn’t that a good thing? Of course it is.

The problem is that none of this addresses the real problem. None of our efforts, none of our religions, no matter how beautiful and holy they look, none of it gets the heart of the matter. The great danger of it all is that we begin to believe that such activities, from eating the right foods to worshipping the right way to taking care of our own bodies, are somehow going to improve our hearts, clean them up and restore them to our God. In fact we can get caught in a desperate spiral where we look to control what we can control and believe that by our control we are moving closer to God, then we seek to control more and not only control ourselves but others as well.  And so the law we use to guide our lives we impose upon others to guide them, just as our sin is judged so we can freely and delightfully judge sin in others.

And so our Lord speaks to what we already know. He makes clear the problem that we cannot correct. “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him… What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder” and on and on and on the list goes. The problem is beyond our control, the problem is a condition of the heart – as we all agreed on at the beginning; we are all sinners.

The Crucifixion by Tintoretto, 1565

Now here’s the thing, our Lord clarifies the heart of the problem. Our hearts are the problem. We are tempted to think that Jesus will improve our hearts, He will fix them up, make them useful and so draw us near to God. We want him to simply control what we can’t control and then give it back. But our Lord knows the problem is much deeper than that. The heart of the sinner cannot be improved. It must die. So the sinner’s heart, the heart that desires to remain in control, has everything taken from it. In claiming you as His brothers and sisters, in dying on that cross for your sins and for your brokenness, Christ has put to death your sinful heart. He who knew no sin became your sin. He became your heart.

So our hope is not found in our effort or what we can control. Our hope is in the one place it has always been. It is in the one who kills and brings forth new life, the one who’s Spirit now lives within your heart. We know the problem, and we know the solution. What our Lord calls for is to believe it. Believe it my friends, believe the Word of His promise. Repent and believe that you are forgiven. You are loved. You are a new creature in the gifts of Christ your Lord.

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