Jesus tells us:
Listen to me, all of you, and understand:
there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,
but the things that come out are what defile.
For it is from within,
from the human heart,
that evil intentions come:
fornication, theft, murder,
adultery, avarice, wickedness,
deceit, licentiousness, envy,
slander, pride, folly.
All these evil things come from within,
and they defile a person.
In the gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus is eating with his friends and disciples, and the Pharisees challenge him. These strictly observant Jews are aghast and even offended that some of these friends and disciples had not performed the proper acts of ritual cleanliness before eating. They sound rather like a tattling younger brother, But Mo-om! You made me wash up, but HE didn’t wash his hands before dinner! And the response that Jesus makes sounds every bit as exasperated as that of a mother who has been working in the kitchen and trying to keep an eye on her children: So what? Good for you that you washed your hands, now could you pay some attention to making the rest of you pleasant to be with?
Of course, Jesus doesn’t use these words. Rather, he challenges the idea that clean hands equal a clean heart, that ritual cleanliness is a true representation of reverence and piety. Jesus uses some harsh words — it is from the human heart that evil intentions come — with a listing of a whole bunch of terrible sins against other humans. The Gospel of Mark does not tell us how the crowd reacted to these accusations. Did the Pharisees grow angry and shout back at him? Were they grudgingly silenced, knowing in their hearts that they were guilty of these things? Did they rush Jesus and try to take him? What did Jesus’ disciples think? Was Peter clutching Jesus’ clothing and hissing through his teeth, “Shut UP, Jesus! They’ll kill us if you keep this up!”? Were the disciples trying to slip away and fade into the marketplace? We don’t know.
So if evil intentions come from within the human heart, then what about good intentions? Where do those come from? The writer of the letter of James gives us an answer. He tells us that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. Of course, this can be a little confusing. If good gifts come from God, then doesn’t this contradict what Jesus says? Doesn’t this mean that good intentions come from the outside? It could… except that this isn’t how God works. God works within us, in the deepest places of our being; God plants good intentions within our hearts. James tells us that it God’s word planted in our hearts that blossoms into good intentions and loving actions. We don’t need freshly-washed hands to comfort a widow or to take in an orphan. We don’t need to be pronounced clean from contact dermatitis in order to bring gifts to a homeless shelter. And a menstruating woman can indeed volunteer at a soup kitchen.
James uses this same metaphor of planting and growing, when he advises us to rid ourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, to weed out the evil intentions and sinful urges that grow within our hearts. If our hearts are gardens, then we need to carefully tend and water and grow those good seeds that began as God’s word. And we need to find and pull the weeds that could choke out the good parts of us, the weeds of lying or stealing or being prideful. We don’t want the garden to become overgrown, tangled in weeds and vines, where we can’t find the beautiful blossoms or the wholesome vegetables and fruits that will feed us. When this happens, we risk tearing out the good plants with the bad, and we know that the weeds will keep popping up until we can get rid of all the roots. It will take time and lots of hard work to bring the garden back to health and order, to being able to produce nutrition and beauty again.
St. Teresa of Ávila, Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, also uses the garden as a metaphor for our souls. The work of prayer, she writes, is like the work of watering the garden. When we first begin the work of prayer, it is difficult, like fetching water from a well. To get water from a well, you can
only pull up a bucket at a time, through hard work, and then you must carry the water bucket to the garden to water the plants, and then go back to the well and repeat this again and again. As we continue to work at prayer, it becomes a little easier, as though we’re bringing in water through an aqueduct or a hose. The next stage is even easier, like a stream flowing through the garden and bringing water to the roots of all the plants. And when we achieve union with God, it is as though our inner garden is watered by a gentle rain from heaven. She continues by saying that even one who has worked and practiced at prayer for years experiences all four of these methods of watering the garden. When we feel like God is far away from us, we trudge to the well and back, over and over. When we can perceive God more nearly, we can expend less effort and simply soak in God’s love.
I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, to take a deep breath, and then to call up the image of the garden of your heart. What does it look like? Is it full of flowers, fruits, trees? Are the plants in orderly rows or in a more natural arrangement? Are there weeds you hadn’t noticed before? Are the plants withered and dry, or are they ripe and healthy? Walk through your garden. Listen to the sounds under your feet. Are you walking on bare soil, on crunchy gravel, on crackling leaves, or on mulched ground? Do you hear birds taking refuge in the garden? Are bees buzzing
industriously from blossom to blossom? Reach out your hand, so that as you walk, your fingers brush the leaves as you pass. What do the leaves feel like on your fingers? Are they warm? Are they dry and crackly, or are they plump and moist? Continue walking until you come to a place to sit. It might be a bench, a log, or even a clear patch of moss or grass. Sit down there and experience your garden with all your senses. Is there a fragrance, like sweet blossoms or spicy herbs? What sounds do you hear? What does the seat feel beneath your legs? This is your garden, your heart, and there is no other like it in the world.
Now, invite God into your garden with you. You may call on one of the persons of the Trinity, or you may call on God by another name. Ask God to join you, there in the garden of your heart. What might you say to God? Would you ask God a question? Or would you just take God’s hand and walk through the garden in companionable silence? With God there, you begin to hear water. What did you hear? Where is the water coming from? Did you hear an apple fall into a well? Or did you hear the rush of water through an aqueduct or stream? Or do you feel on your face and arms a cool, soft, gentle rain? How do you feel about your garden? Can you share this with God? What might you say to God about your garden? Would you say thank you? Would you ask God to help you with the weeding and pruning and harvesting? Would you invite God to make a home here, in the garden of your heart?
When you are ready, say good-bye (or maybe, see you later!) to God, and make your way back from your garden to your surroundings. James invites us to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. It is this implanted word that enables us to reject the rank growth of wickedness that becomes the evil intentions Jesus listed. Now that you have seen and heard and touched and smelled the garden of your heart, you know where God’s word has been planted and where there are weeds. You know that you possess within you a place of great beauty and potential, a place worthy for God to come and walk with you. From this place can come both good gifts —
love and care and help for others — and the evil intentions Jesus warns us against. Only you and God know what is growing in your garden.
As we finish our walk in the garden, I invite you to pray with me the Collect for Sunday:
Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your Name;
increase in us true religion;
nourish us with all goodness;
and bring forth in us the fruit of good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.