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Homily: “On What Defiles a Person”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.

Saint Paul exhorts us to take and use the sword of the Spirit because Jesus wields the sword of the Spirit when He cuts us to the heart, piercing our own souls with the truth, that we may grow in maturity to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. This is His work of reforming us in His likeness, and it involves embracing the experiences of life as we encounter them, falling down because of our own frailty, and through God’s grace standing up again. I reflected on this over the past week while my daughters and I watched the Disney version of Pinocchio. And this helps us also to break open Our Lord’s teaching on what defiles a person.

The story of Pinocchio is a rather odd one. We meet Geppetto in his wood-carving shop with his cat Figaro. Geppetto is fond of a marionette he has carved, indeed wishing before bed one night that the marionette, Pinocchio, would come to life. After falling asleep, all of the clocks come to a stand-still—time itself stops, isn’t that curious—and time does not start up again until Pinocchio is now a full-fledged boy through a transformation by a fairy, who resurrected the stringless puppet who, instead of going to school like he should have, got tempted to do something else, which led to his apparent after saving his father from the belly of a great whale. That is the shell of the story—oh, and at one point boys become donkeys and a talking bug figures prominently and receives gold medal recognition for his work as a conscience. There are details that make the story even stranger, but that is the broad cut of it.

One way to think about what it means is that it is a story about the necessity of becoming a more seasoned person—seasoned in the ways of the world. There is a clear sense in which Pinocchio is innocent as a dove, yet hardly wise as a serpent. He has all the guileless enthusiasm so attractive in people. Yet he is taken in by shady characters such as the ironically Honest John. Watching the film, one wishes Pinocchio would not engage him and others, and listen to his bug conscience, yet there is also the sense in the story that without these experiences, even the whale experience, Pinocchio will never be seasoned enough in the world to survive the world’s temptations—witness his utter failure on Paradise Island to resist temptation whatsoever. Even if Pinocchio had gone to school that morning instead of being tempted away, did he not need an education in the school of life—not to change his infectious, charming personality, but to fulfill the wish of the father that Pinocchio would be a real person? Seasoning in life is essential to maturity.

Jesus realized as well that His disciples needed seasoning in the ways of spiritual life. They needed to be stretched—indeed that their ways of thought and life were too much like old wine skins, no longer able to be stretched out to accommodate the fermenting wine, and needed to be more like new wine skins, that could adequately contain the new revelation of the depth of God’s love, His life, and His call to a depth of repentance never before seen.

And so, that Jesus is stretching His disciples is the right way to understand His teaching about what defiles a person. He is pushing them like a coach pushes his players, or a teacher pushes her students. As we have seen, Jesus has a profound respect for the Jewish religion and religious practices. He wants not to destroy Jewish religion but fulfill it, and to fulfill it, He must show how it is to be reformed to its original vision laid out by God. He greatly respected the religious practices of Judaism, and observed them Himself. These purification and dietary practices were part of an ancient system of honoring God concretely and in the hardest way—actual behavior and action. Real faith is what we live and act out.

When the disciples heard Jesus call the Pharisees “hypocrites” it would have been an amazing yet confusing thing to hear. Jesus observed such external rules as a devout Jew, and He is calling people hypocrites for doing the same? They very well may have thought Him completely batty. Yet He did this I think with a quiet but deadly smile on His face, because He knew this would be a curve ball thrown by a pitcher, that starts at the head of the batter then curves ruthlessly into the strike zone. Jesus, wiser beyond all serpents put together, seemed to reject perfectly orthodox practice not because the external rules were bad but to wake people up to internal realities, that they would start to focus on these internal realities—the realities faced in a person’s heart.

Christian religion is habitual, but it cannot become a mere habit, a perpetual going-through the motions. Our religion is about changing our hearts—not merely a certain code of behavior that leaves the heart aside. God came to us in Jesus Christ to contend for our hearts—to contend for our deepest internal realities from which all choices are made; our heart is the arena in which we encounter God, but also where we encounter Satan. In our Collect we have asked God to graft into our hearts the love of His Name. These are words we are used to, but their meaning is inexhaustibly profound, because it has to do with nothing less than a transformation of life away from the temptations of life, the temptations toward pride that lead to prideful actions the Devil loves to see, and toward the love of God and actions of holy living that God treasures.

During the Mass, the priest does not ask us to merely lift up our ideals, but to lift up our hearts—to give the arena of divine encounter all to Him. Not lift up our wishes and dreams, but to lift up our hearts. Let us, like Geppetto, ask God for the impossible. Let us, like Pinocchio, approach life with gusto. Let us through ourselves at the feet of God. Let us do so knowing that at the feet of the God of all power and might, all of heaven and all of earth are full of His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father.