Woody Allen once said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Allen is on to the same thing that Jesus says in this morning’s gospel reading. In response to the Pharisees, he delivers perhaps his most revolutionary insight into human nature. It might be summed up like this. He is not the problem. She is not the problem. They are not the problem. That is not the problem. I am the problem.
In fact, Woody doesn’t go quite far enough. Even if I am someone else, I do not escape the problem. Human nature is evenly distributed. Jesus’ revolutionary insight is that human nature is not fundamentally good or even neutral. He rejects the widespread notion that if we just put the right externals into place – a good education, knowledge of the law, a strong moral compass, the right family values, then basically good people will just keep getting better.
It’s not that education and law and morals and values are intrinsically wrong. It is just that the root of the problem is deeper and more inbred. The root of the problem is our own hearts, our very selves.
The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t follow all the rules of purification before they eat. They think that by following certain rules, by checking the external boxes, they can stay pure, clean and upright. Jesus calls them hypocrites and says that just following certain rules can’t protect them from the problem. He says the problem isn’t out there somewhere, managed and maintained by external solutions. Again, the root of the problem is our own hearts, our very selves.
There is no nuance is Jesus’ response. “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.” He, she, they are not the problem. I am the problem.
I presume that one of the reasons you came to church today is to hear some good news. How could this possibly be good news? How could hearing that my heart is the producer of evil intentions bring any help or comfort in the challenge of living life?
One answer to that question is that accepting Jesus’ realistic view of human nature allows you to be an integrated person. People are not all bad, but we are also not “all good.” Recognizing, as Solzhenitsyn says, that “the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart” gives you a framework for understanding your less edifying actions. St. Paul is onto the same thing when he says, “the evil I don’t want to do, I do and the good I want to do I don’t do.” To be self-aware is the beginning of maturity. You can drop the charade of having it all together. After all, as the Alexander Pope says, “to err is human.”
I know a man who, after a life threatening surgery, told his family that he only wanted to talk about positive and happy things for the rest of his life. That sounds ok at first, but suppressing anything negative kills any actual relationship. All you have is one façade play-acting with another façade.
To be in denial about your innate culpability is to be disintegrated. You start immaturely shifting blame away from yourself. The trodden trail of blame-shifting treads all the way back to the Garden of Eden. After Eve eats the forbidden fruit, she blames the serpent. Then Adam one ups Eve’s blame game and blames both Eve and God. “The woman you gave me made me do it.” Really, Adam? She is not the problem. I am the problem. T.S. Eliot calls him a “ruined millionaire.”
You must know someone who is never at fault. It’s always someone else’s fault. I love the line in the new Dawes song about someone like that. “Let’s make a list of all the things that life has put you through. Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not talking to. I don’t know what else you want me to say to you. Things happen. They always do.”
To understand that you are intrinsically flawed is also good news because it leads to compassion for other intrinsically flawed people – at least in theory. As far as I can tell, this is the foundation of marriage, or any other intimate relationship. Expecting a person to be good, to behave in a certain way all the time sets you up for disappointment in the other person.
William Faulkner wrote about this foundation of marriage in his short story, “Go Down, Moses.”
“Husband and wife did not need to speak words to one another, not just from the old habit of living together but because in that one long-ago instant… even though they knew at the time it wouldn’t and couldn’t last, they had touched and become as God when they voluntarily and in advance forgave one another for all that each knew the other could never be.”
That’s a beautiful picture of compassion for another intrinsically flawed person. As I said, this compassion happens in theory. Faulkner’s actual marriage was as unhappy as a marriage could be. But his insight is right on: to forgive one another for all that the other could never be.
Accepting Jesus’ diagnosis of our hearts means accepting ourselves – forgiving ourselves for all we can never be. So many people struggle with this. Sometimes the consequences are dire.
There was a story in last Sunday’s NY Times about a woman named Paula Cooper. When she was 15 she was in a bad way and ended up robbing and killing an older woman named Ruth Pelke. Ms. Pelke was Cooper’s Bible teacher. Cooper was sentenced to die in the electric chair as a 15 year old, the youngest person ever to receive a death sentence.
“What followed was extraordinary. Bill Pelke, the Bible teacher’s grandson, forgave Ms. Cooper for killing his beloved grandmother, who never would have wanted an execution, he said. Mr. Pelke started a sweeping campaign to spare Ms. Cooper’s life, wrote to her faithfully and visited her behind bars. “She told me how truly sorry she was for what she’d done,” said Mr. Pelke.”
As a result, Ms. Cooper was sentenced instead to 60 years in prison. She earned her bachelor’s degree, ran the prison kitchen, and mentored other prisoners. She was released decades earlier than her 60 years for good behavior. Out of prison, she found a job as a legal assistant and appeared to be thriving.
The story takes a sad turn here. This past May, 2 years after her release, Ms. Cooper committed suicide. Her sister said, “Bill Pelke forgave her, but she couldn’t forgive herself. She said she felt like she didn’t deserve to live.”
Perhaps the best news of Jesus’ description of our hearts and the failure of the law to help us is that it gives us the ears to hear, and the hearts to receive God’s forgiveness. We are ruined millionaires in need of the riches of God’s mercy. We are sick people in need of healing. Fortunately for us, Jesus says that He has not come for those who are well – they have no need of a physician. He has come to call the sick. That is the gospel.
One of the deepest ironies of the gospel is that the trail of blame-shifting that began in the Garden runs directly to the foot of the cross. Collectively, we transferred our sickness onto the only truly well person to have ever lived. “Crucify him! Crucify him! He is the problem.” The scripture says that though Jesus was sinless, he became sin for our sake so that we might be righteous. God shifted the blame of our hearts’ evil intentions on to Himself.
“O, mystery of love divine, that thought and thanks o’erpowers! Lord Jesus, was our portion Thine, and is Thy portion ours? Our load of sin and misery, didst Thou, the sinless bear? Thy spotless robe of purity, do we the sinners wear?”
Can this good news really be true? The answer is yes. Because to err is human; to forgive divine.
- Mark 7:1 - 8