Food for the Heart

Lectio Divina: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

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Roman Rite

Dt 4, 1-2.6-8; Ps 15; Jas 1, 17-18.21-22.27; Mk 7, 1-8.14-15.21-23

Ambrosian Rite

Is 29.13 to 21; Ps 84; Heb 12.18 to 25; Jn 3.25 to 36?

First Sunday after the Martyrdom of St. John the Precursor.

1)  Pure religion.

After having proposed – divided among five Sundays- the sixth chapter of St John, the liturgy returns to read St. Mark whose Gospel accompanies us on the Sundays in Ordinary Time during Year B. In today’s Gospel – 7th chapter of Mark- Jesus helps the people and the disciples to deepen the concept and the laws of purity. In this regard, we are also helped by the Letter of St. James “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 – Second Reading of today’s Mass).

For centuries, Jews were forbidden to make contact with pagans and to eat with them in order to avoid contracting legal impurity.

Convinced that religion consisted in the external ritual of the religion coming from God, the Pharisees are scandalized that Christ’s disciples “took food with unclean hands” (Mk 7.2). Believing to obey the laws of God, these objectors of the Master did not eat unless they had washed their hands (Mk 7.3). They identified fidelity to the “God is near” (Dt 4, 7) spoken by Moses, with those “other things” that they were doing “because of traditions” (Mk 7.4).

The first thing to note is that Jesus does not teach at all to disobey the law. He teaches to fight hypocrisy and formalism, to give more importance to the dispositions of the heart rather than to the superficial gestures and rites. On one hand, Christ condemns the distance of God from the heart of men who think to honor Him with the scrupulous observance of the rules prescribed by the law. On the other hand, He shows that “purity” is not a matter of washed hands or lips purified by rituals, but is a matter of the heart.

No food that comes into a man can make him impure, because it doesn’t go to the heart but to the stomach and ends up in the sewer.  Jesus says that what makes him impure is what comes out from the heart to poison human relations.

What is dirty, unclean or impure are not external things, but the bad actions and intentions that came from a heart bad and away from God. God does not exist where there is no heart because it is distracted or closed in fear.

How to return the heart to God? How to approach him?

We approach God “with the frequent purification of alms, tears and the other fruits of justice that make the heart and the body pure in order to participate in the mysteries of heaven.” (St Bede the Venerable).

In short, the religion brought by Jesus cannot be reduced to external rites, a moral code or a doctrine. It is the revelation of God’s face in Jesus’ humanity that comes to tell us that no law, big or small, has meaning if it is not accompanied by love and if it is not consumed in love. Christ and the Gospel bring his love and his law to the human heart and recreate it.

Christian worship is not reducible to the execution of certain rites for a commemoration of past events, and not even to a particular inner experience. Essentially it is an encounter with the Risen Lord in the deep of a heart purified and attracted by a presence that freely becomes encounter and freely can be recognized.

We must understand that our salvation (we can also say our happiness, because the human reflection of salvation is happiness and the human reflection of Christ’s grace is the pleasure of His grace) does not depend on good works done according to the law. Benedict XVI stressed that salvation does not depend on good works done according to the law or works as good and holy is the law (see Rom 7: 12)], but  on the fact that Jesus died for all of us sinners “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2, 20)] and that He was and is risen. It is important that, like St. Paul, our heart recognizes that we are “a nothing loved by Jesus Christ.” “I am nothing,” St. Paul says of himself at the end of the Second Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 12, 11) and in the Letter to the Galatians “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2, 20). A humble and contrite heart is a pure heart and practices a pure and true religion.

2)  Virgin heart[1].

True religion begins with the return to the heart, to which God speaks in solitude, see Hosea 2, 16 “I’ll take you in the desert and speak to your heart.”

If the desert is the place “preferred” by God to speak to us, it is important to remember that the ways of speaking of God are many (see. Hebrews 1.1). In this meditation I will underline three.

The first is nature. Heaven and earth sing the glory of God and the human being can grasp it, understand it and admire it. The first way of talking about God is reality. The world created by God- is the gift that speaks to us of the Giver.

The second are the Word, history, the Bible and Revelation, where God communicates himself directly.

The third is the talk of Christ to our hearts, in the hearts of each of us. It is the heart that rejoices, the eyes that give off light, the sweetness that we feel inside. God speaks especially to the heart, giving those feelings that make us live: feelings of joy, of light and sweetness that give direction and meaning to life.

It is important to understand what the Word that becomes Bread that becomes life is, and what the word that becomes death is. To do this we need a virgin heart. Because it is not only with intelligence that we understand the word, but also with the heart that makes us feel and love it. When one has the Word in his heart and loves it, he freely realizes it[2].

For the consecrated Virgins in the world this realization is apostolic. It is authentically apostolic not because it implies a specific “apostolate,” but because it takes inspiration from the teaching and activity of the Apostles to serve the Church in the world. The Introduction to the Rite of Consecration of Virgins say: “The gift of a prophetic and eschatological virginity acquires the value of a ministry in the service of God’s people and places the consecrated persons at the heart of the Church and of the world” (Introduction, 2). In the Church every gift or charisma takes the form of ministry. In the case of consecrated virginity this ministry, delivered and experienced by a public consecration, is a “work” of service, therefore ministerial, and a testimony “in the heart of the Church and the world.” In the local Church the consecrated Virgins represent “Christian life as a nuptial union between Christ and the Church, which is the foundation of both the consecrated virginity that the sacrament of marriage” (Introduction, 1), namely the two vocations in which the ‘love of Christ is depicted. Virginal love is “to recall the transience of earthly realities and to anticipate things to come” (Introduction, 1) in the world affairs. The consecrated Virgin is an icon of the local Church “in the world but as a pilgrim” (Introduction, 1). The consecrated Virgins are the icons of how it is possible to follow Christ, the bridegroom of whom they hear the word constantly and of whom they nourish themselves in the Eucharist. With the mind and the heart nurtured of Christ, these women live and work in the world bringing with virgin heart the Gospel of virginity, “growing in love in Jesus and in the service of others, a ministry done with dedication free, friendly and humble” ( see. Preconditions). This humility takes root on the virginity of the heart of the person that acts in a way that everything in her “is” given and everything “is” availability to Jesus.

Patristic Reading

Golden Chain

Bede, in Marc., 2, 29: The people of the land of Gennesareth, who seemed to be unlearned men, not only come themselves, but also bring their sick to the Lord, that they may but succeed in touching the hem of His garment. But the Pharisees and Scribes, who ought to have been the teachers of the people, run together to the Lord, not to seek for healing, but to move captious questions.

Wherefore it is said, “Then there came together unto Him the Pharisees and certain of the Scribes, coming from Jerusalem; and when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with common, that is, with unwashen hands, they found fault.”

Theophylact: For the disciples of the Lord, who were taught only the practice of virtue, used to eat in a simple way, without washing their hands; but the Pharisees, wishing to find an occasion of blame against them, took it up; they did not indeed blame them as transgressors of the law, but for transgressing the traditions of the elders.

Wherefore it goes on: “For the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.”

Bede: For taking the spiritual words of the Prophets in a carnal sense, they observed, by washing the body alone, commandments which concerned the chastening of the heart and deeds, saying, “Wash (p. 132) you, make you clean;” (Is 1,16) and again, “Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord.” (Is 52,11)

It is therefore a superstitious human tradition, that men who are clean already, should wash oftener because they eat bread, and that they should not eat on leaving the market, without washing. But it is necessary for those who desire to partake of the bread which comes down from heaven, often to cleanse their evil deeds by alms, by tears, and the other fruits of righteousness. It is also necessary for a man to wash thoroughly away the pollutions which he has contracted from the cares of temporal business, by being afterwards intent on good thoughts and works.

In vain, however, do the Jews wash their hands, and cleanse themselves after the market, so long as they refuse to be washed in the font of the Saviour; in vain do they observe the washing of their vessels, who neglect to wash away the filthy sins of their bodies and of their hearts.

It goes on: “Then the Scribes and Pharisees asked Him, Why walk not thy disciples after the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with common hands?”

Jerome, Hier. in Matt., 15: Wonderful is the folly of the Pharisees and Scribes; they accuse the Son of God, because He keeps not the traditions and precepts of men. But “common” is here put for unclean; for the people of the Jews, boasting that they were the portion of God, called those meats common, which all made use of.

Pseudo-Jerome: He beats back the vain words of the Pharisees with His arguments, as men drive back dogs with weapons, by interpreting Moses and Isaiah, that we too by the word of Scripture may conquer the heretics, who oppose us.

Wherefore it goes on: “Well hath Esaia prophesied of you hypocrites; as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Is 29,13)

Pseudo-Chrys., Vict. Ant. e Cat. in Marc.: For since they unjustly accused the disciples not of trangressing the law, but the commands of the elders, He sharply confounds them, calling them hypocrites, as looking with reverence upon what was not worthy of it. He adds, however, the words of Isaiah the prophet, as spoken to them; as though He would say, As those men, of whom it is said, “that they honour God with their lips, whilst their heart is far from Him,” in vain pretend to observe the dictates of piety, whilst they honour the doctrines of men, so ye also neglect your soul, of which you (p. 133) should take care, and blame those who live justly.

Pseudo-Jerome: But Pharisaical tradition, as to tables and vessels, is to be cut off, and cast away. For they often make the commands of God yield to the traditions of men.

Wherefore it continues, “For laying aside the commandments of God, ye hold to the traditions of men, as the washing of pots and cups.”

Pseudo-Chrys., Vict. Ant. e Cat. in Marc.: Moreover, to convict them of neglecting the reverence due to God, for the sake of the tradition of the elders, which was opposed to the Holy Scriptures, He subjoins, “For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death.”

Bede: The sense of the word honour in Scripture is not so much the saluting and paying court to men, as alms-giving, and bestowing gifts; “honour,” says the Apostle, “widows who are widows indeed.” (1Tm 5,3)

Pseudo-Chrys., Vict. Ant. e Cat. in Marc.: Notwithstanding the existence of such a divine law, and the threats against such as break it, ye lightly transgress the commandment of God, observing the traditions of the Elders.

Wherefore there follows: “But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;” understand, he will be freed from the observation of the foregoing command.

Wherefore it continues, “And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother.”

Theophylact: For the Pharisees, wishing to devour the offerings, instructed sons, when their parents asked for some of their property, to answer them, what thou hast asked of me is corban, that is, a gift, I have already offered it up to the Lord; thus the parents would not require it, as being offered up to the Lord, (and in that way profitable for their own salvation). (ed. note: the words in the parenthesis are not in Theophylact)

Thus they deceived the sons into neglecting their parents, whilst they themselves devoured the offerings; with this therefore the Lord reproaches them, as transgressing the law of God for the sake of gain. Wherefore it goes on, “Making the word of God of none effect through your traditions, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye;” transgressing, that is, the commands of God, that ye may observe the traditions of men.

Pseudo-Chrys., Vict. Ant. e Cat. in Marc.: Or else it may be said, that the Pharisees taught young persons, that if a man offered a gift in expiation of the injury done to his (p. 134) father or mother, he was free from sin, as having given to God the gifts which are owed to a parent; and in saying this, they did not allow parents to be honoured.

Bede: The passage may in a few words have this sense, Every gift which I have to make, will go to do you good; for ye compel children, it is meant, to say to their parents, that gift which I was going to offer to God, I expend on feeding you, and does you good, oh father and mother, speaking this ironically. Thus they would be afraid to accept what had been given into the hands of God, and might prefer a life of poverty to living on consecrated property.

Pseudo-Jerome: Mystically, again, the disciples eating with unwashed hands signifies the future fellowship of the Gentiles with the Apostles. The cleaning and washing of the Pharisees is barren; but the fellowship of the Apostles, though without washing, has stretched out its branches as far as the sea.




[1] The word “heart” in the Bible is used nearly a thousand times. Rarely (about 20% of cases) is used to indicate the physical organ that beats in the body.

To the question “Wh
y has God given us a heart?” The most common answer is “To love“. In the Bible, the answer is that God has given us a heart to think and to know “Has not the Lord given you a heart to understand … Eyes to see … ears to hear?” (Dt 9, 3).

The first meaning of the word “heart” in the Bible is to understand, to learn and to know “Teach us to number our days that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90.12); “Some scribes thought in their hearts … Jesus said to them, why you think so in your hearts?” (Mk. 2.6); “O foolish and slow of heart to believe the words of the prophets” (Luke 24:25)

The second meaning that the Bible gives to the word heart is memory. In the Bible heart and memory are linked and have a strong reference to the life of faith: to remember means to be faithful. “Know therefore and preserve in the heart that the Lord is God … And there is no other god” (Dt 4.39); “These commandments that I give you today stay in your heart” (Dt 6, 6); “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 1, 66-2, 19-2, 51).

The word heart, finally, is also used in the Bible to describe feelings, all feelings and not just love. Joy, desire, gratitude “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Ps 84,3); bitterness “It breaks my heart in my chest … My heart cries” (Jer 23.9 to 48.36); confidence “We take heart and wait for the Lord” (Ps 27); God’s love for us and our love for Him “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God … you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today stay in your heart … “(Deut. 6.4 ff.)

For this richness of meanings often in the Bible the word heart indicates the whole person “My heart exults in the Lord …” = “I rejoice in the Lord …” (1 Sam 2,1)

The meaning is the same, but when the heart is highlighted, the person is seen in his interiority. Thoughts, feelings, secret projects and rationality, that is the reason by which a man chooses to live his life, for the Bible reside in the human heart. The human heart is the place where the human being is truly and totally himself, without masks or hypocrisy “I will put my law in the depths of their being, and write it on their hearts … Then shall all know me” (Jer. 31:33 ff.). In anthropomorphic way this vision of the heart is then applied to God himself “My heart is turned within me, my pity is stirred” (Hosea 11.8).


[2] For the Sacred Scripture the heart is not only a literary image symbolizing feelings or emotions. On the contrary it is the place where all our being is focused; it is the inner part of ourselves from where our decisions originate and where our decisive experiences live.

The heart is the source of all that man is or decides to be and to do:

“Of you my heart said: seek his face …” (Ps 27.8);

“Rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to your God” (Joel 2:13);

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me …” (29:13);

“Man looks at appearances, the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7);

“From the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, thefts, murders, adulteries …” (Mark 7:21);

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34);

“With the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (Rom 10:10).

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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