Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Only What Is Within The Heart, And Nothing From Outside, Can Defile A Person;

Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Kings 10:1-10
The queen of Sheba, having heard of Solomon’s fame,
came to test him with subtle questions.
She arrived in Jerusalem with a very numerous retinue,
and with camels bearing spices,
a large amount of gold, and precious stones.
She came to Solomon and questioned him
on every subject in which she was interested.
King Solomon explained everything she asked about,
and there remained nothing hidden from him
that he could not explain to her.

When the queen of Sheba witnessed
Solomon’s great wisdom,
the palace he had built, the food at his table,
the seating of his ministers,
the attendance and garb of his waiters,
 his banquet service, and the burnt offerings
he offered in the temple of the LORD, she was breathless.
 “The report I heard in my country about your deeds
and your wisdom is true,” she told the king.
“Though I did not believe the report
until I came and saw with my own eyes,
I have discovered that they were not telling me the half.
Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report I heard.
Blessed are your men, blessed these servants of yours,
who stand before you always and listen to your wisdom.
Blessed be the LORD, your God,
whom it has pleased to place you on the throne of Israel.
In his enduring love for Israel,
the LORD has made you king
to carry out judgment and justice.”
Then she gave the king
one hundred and twenty gold talents,
a very large quantity of spices, and precious stones.
Never again did anyone bring such an abundance of spices
as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
The story of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon gives an opportunity for the sacred writer to describe the extraordinary magnificence of the Jerusalem court.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Sheba is to be identified with a mercantile kingdom that flourished in southwest Arabia c. 900-450 BC. It profited from the sea trade of India and east Africa by transporting luxury commodities north to Damascus and Gaza on caravan routes through the Arabian Desert. It is possible that Solomon's fleet of ships threatened Sheba's continued dominance of this trading business. The queen, too, may have wanted to establish better trading relationships. Solomon dominated Transjordan and controlled the caravan route from north Arabia to Syria and Egypt. Judging by the descriptions of both Solomon and the queen it was a highly lucrative trade for both of them.

However, some hold that the queen mentioned here more probably ruled over one of the Sabaean settlements of northern Arabia. The Hebrew Bible distinguishes between the more usual Sheba (used here) and Seba which it associates more closely with Cush, or Ethiopia. The name Seba came to be used for the far South, just as Tarshish stands for the Western limits of the earth, figuring as one of the great tribes of travelling merchants. This far-off people, together with the kings of Arabia and Seba, will come to do homage to the future King, as implied in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (Matt 2:11, referring to Ps 72:1-11 and Is 60:6).

The purpose of the queen’s visit was to test Solomon’s wisdom, whose fame had reached as far as her kingdom. Arriving with a large retinue and weighed down with expensive gifts, she asked him questions on all the things in which she was particularly interested. He dealt easily and competently with every problem she posed to him.

It seems that the queen of Sheba recognised a connection between the wisdom of Solomon and the God he served. Jesus used her example to condemn the people of his own day who had not recognised that "one greater than Solomon" was in their midst (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31).

When the queen saw the wealth and opulence with which Solomon was surrounded – his palace, the food on his table, the number and dress of his attendants and the holocausts he offered in the Temple, she was rendered speechless. She said that, although she had been sceptical of the reports she had heard, having seen with her own eyes she realised she had been only told half the truth.

Solomon far surpassed all her expectations both in his wisdom and his prosperity. Indeed, she said, blessed were the king’s court and attendants to be always in the presence of such wisdom. In fact, the reports she had received at home gave no idea of the reality she now saw with her own eyes.

She concluded by calling blessings on the God who put a person of such wisdom and judgement as Solomon on Israel’s throne. However, it does not imply her personal recognition of the God of the Israelites; there is no hint that she abandoned belief in her own gods.

Before leaving, she gave even more gifts, including 120 gold talents, an enormous amount of money. Never again would anyone bring such an abundance of gifts as the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon.

Underlying this story, of course, is the understanding that all Solomon's magnificence was a sign of God's blessings on his people. He and he alone was the source of all these blessings. It is clear that the description of this visit was not merely to describe the purpose of the queen’s visit to experience Solomon's wisdom at first hand. For the writer, the focus is not on the queen but on the magnificence Solomon’s court as a reflection of Israel’s glory and God’s special favor on them as a people.

We too need to remember that all the good things we have and experience are not simply the result of our own efforts. They can disappear just as quickly as they came. We can never claim anything as absolutely our own.

We are simply stewards of all that comes into our hands. They are not merely for our own enjoyment, least of all to be used at the expense of others. They are given as things by which we can be of service to others. Everything is for one purpose only: God's praise and service. And an awareness of that is a form of real wisdom.

+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 37
The mouth of the just murmurs wisdom.
Commit to the LORD your way;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make justice dawn for you like the light;
bright as the noonday shall be your vindication.
The mouth of the just murmurs wisdom.
The mouth of the just man tells of wisdom
and his tongue utters what is right.
The law of his God is in his heart,
and his steps do not falter.
The mouth of the just murmurs wisdom.
The salvation of the just is from the LORD;
he is their refuge in time of distress.
And the LORD helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.
The mouth of the just murmurs wisdom.
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Mark 7:14-23
Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,
“Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.”

When he got home away from the crowd
his disciples questioned him about the parable.
He said to them,
“Are even you likewise without understanding?
Do you not realize that everything
that goes into a person from outside cannot defile,
since it enters not the heart but the stomach
and passes out into the latrine?”
(Thus he declared all foods clean.)
“But what comes out of the man,
that is what defiles him.
From within the man, from his heart,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.”
After defending himself against the accusations of some Pharisees and scribes, about his not observing the traditions of the elders, Jesus now turns to the people. He enunciates what for him is the main principle:

- Nothing that goes into the body from outside can make a person ritually or religiously unclean.
- What makes a person unclean is the filth that comes from inside their mind and spoken through their mouth or expressed in their actions.

This was a major issue in the earliest days of the Church and was dealt with by the Council of Jerusalem. The story is told in the Acts of the Apostles. The first Christians were all Jews who continued to observe Jewish customs. But when non-Jews began to be accepted into the Christian communities, should they also be obliged to follow these laws and customs? It became clear that, from a religious point of view, no food could be called unclean. This helped to break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. It has been pointed out that, immediately after this (cf. tomorrow’s reflection), Jesus entered Gentile territory, something he did not often do in his own ministry.

Even Jesus’ disciples seemed shocked by Jesus’ teaching (probably reflecting the reactions of some of the early Jewish Christians). Jesus repeats what he says in the light of the Kingdom he was proclaiming. No food that goes into a person from the outside can make a person unclean. Food does not go into the heart but into the stomach and ultimately passes out as waste. Real uncleanness is in the heart, in the mind. Real uncleanness comes from inside people in the form of “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly”. This is real uncleanness and the source is in ourselves and not in what we eat.

As Christians, we do not normally worry about clean and unclean foods on religious grounds but we can sometimes judge people's religious commitment by their observance or non-observance purely external things – a nun not wearing a habit, not taking holy water on going into the church, taking communion in the hand/in the mouth.

We may have got rid of the problem of unclean foods but there are many other ways by which we focus on trivial externals while ignoring the real evils, the places where real love is absent – in ourselves.

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

I have an uncomfortable feeling that Our Lord might be reading Judas Iscariot's own heart here. Apart from the sexual sins, everything in the list can be ascribed to Judas (what greater blasphemy can there be than to call God a blasphemer?) As far as the sexual sins listed are concerned, perhaps Judas had been pilfering from the common purse to spend on the ladies.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Your feeling that "Our Lord might be reading Judas Iscariot's heart here" is well founded. Jesus, in his divine nature, as Son of God, knows all things that have happened, are happening, and have yet to happen, as "eternally present"; "as if they were all happening at the same time" is the best way to phrase such knowledge in words that ordinary humans can understand.

Included in what Jesus knows, when he is "reading Judas Isariot's heart here" is that the day will come when Judas will betray him to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Teachers of the Law, the first act in the drama of his trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection.

Also included in the truth that Jesus knows on this day is whether between the moment Judas tied the noose around his neck, and the moment he took his last breath, he repented of his betrayal.

For that matter, Jesus knows whether you, or I, or anyone who reads this comment, will die in the state of grace. That is why we have a gentle and wise intercessor before the Throne of God, who is Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Sarah in the tent said...

The last sin in the list is folly. Perhaps Judas did repent.