In the first century, Hebrews believed that they would be defiled by the things they ate. In the twenty first century, many Americans believe that people are generally good, and they learn to be prejudiced and hateful from their environment. I hadn’t seen the parallel until I spent some time meditating on the following words Jesus spoke to his first century audience:
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” …. Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” …. And he said, “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, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”Mark 7:15, 18, 19, 20-23 ESV
Modern Americans may not agree with the list of evils Jesus mentions here, nor would they agree with ancient Hebrews’ list of evils, but I find it interesting that they might both generally agree, perhaps, on the source of evil – coming from outside the person. Modern Americans popularly believe that all people are good, that we only learn to be bad. It’s pressure from outside of us that influences us to do evil things.
Jesus said that isn’t true. It’s what comes from within us that defiles us. Jesus might have been echoing the Prophet, Jeremiah, when he said the human heart is deceitful (and “desperately sick”). (Jer. 17:9) We fool ourselves when we think that we are basically good.
James says, “[E]ach person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire …” (and, “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin….”). (James 1:14-15) Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13), and all people have sinned and fallen short. (Rom 3:23) The thread of sin runs through all people.
I think that Scripture is correct in this. The human heart tends toward evil. We have to learn to be good. Evil is what comes naturally, but good has to be learned.
But what is the essence of goodness and evil? This is where we find agreement (it’s not good to kill babies for fun) and disagreement (on issues like abortion).
Jesus breaks “being good” down to two things: loving God above all else, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. (Matt. 22:36-40) If these things are the greatest goods, then the greatest evils are what is contrary to them: not loving God and not loving our neighbors.
I think modern Americans can agree about the goodness of loving others, but we tend to reject (or are agnostic about) loving God. Ancient Hebrews generally subscribed to both precepts, but there was a disconnect for them. They got caught up in the commandments (the do’s and don’ts) and didn’t understand that those commandments pointed to something greater. Thus, they focused on what they took into their bodies instead of what came out of their hearts.
Jesus focused on the heart of the matter – human hearts. We would do well to refocus our attention in the twenty first century on human hearts as well, beginning with our own hearts. We search for ultimate truth within ourselves, but the hateful things that we detest in others come from within us also.Continue reading “Reflections on God and Good and Evil: Inside Out”