For the record, we here at Saint David’s are in favor of handwashing. We even have our own version of a tradition of elders. A sign in our restrooms encourages us to wash our hands with a quotation from a 13th century book titled “On Laws.”
But in our reading Jesus is not particularly interested in handwashing. The defilement that interests Jesus comes from within, from our evil intentions and corrupt hearts.
We get this. Think about road rage. Cars really do get in our way. Some drivers really are too aggressive. But the rage that occasionally bubbles up isn’t caused by those other drivers. The rage comes from within, from our corrupt hearts. The traffic that sets us off is just an occasion for the evil that is already inside us to come out.
That heart evil can taint even our best actions. Sometimes Carrie asks me to do something that I don’t want to do. I agree because I want to be a good and loving husband. But I do what she asks with such poor grace that Carrie doesn’t feel a lot of love. What she gets from me in those times is resentment. My evil and corrupt heart has tainted what was supposed to be an act of love.
That is what Jesus is telling the Pharisees in our Gospel reading. Jesus is trying to show them that they should worry as much about their sinful hearts as about the specifics of their behavior.
That is an invitation for us, too. And if we examine our hearts honestly, we will find a complicated mess. There is much good in my heart, and plenty of bad, too. That is true for all of us.
That is as far as Jesus takes the Pharisees in our reading. But we can go one step farther. Having acknowledged that there is evil within us, the question is, what should we do about it?
Carrie and I are watching a television program that raises this question in a powerful way. In the program, a white police officer pulls a gun on a Black college student named Reggie. The officer doesn’t shoot, but Reggie is traumatized by the incident, and he begins to act out.
A little later, Reggie sees the police officer laughing with some friends, and he moves to confront him. Thankfully an older Black man named Dean Fairbanks stops Reggie and tells him not to let those three minutes—the three minutes of confrontation with the white police officer—not to let those minutes define his whole life.
Fairbanks understands the point Jesus makes in our gospel reading. Fairbanks can see beneath the surface of Reggie’s actions. He recognizes that Reggie’s bad behavior comes from within, from his wounded heart. He encourages Reggie to seek heart-healing, not revenge.
And Reggie responds with the agonized question, “How?” How can I let go of my anger and my hurt? How can I move on? How can I heal?
We may well ask the same question. I have never had a gun pulled on me. But when I glimpse the evil in my own heart, I ask myself, how can I root out that evil? How can I let go of the anger that sometimes comes out when I drive? How can I let go of the petty selfishness that sometimes comes out in my interactions with Carrie?
Most importantly, how can I open myself to the transforming power and love of God? How can I become more like the person God created me to be, more like the person God calls me to grow into, more like Christ who shows me how to love perfectly?
We can work towards that ambitious goal in baby steps. And the way most of us make progress, the way most of us grow in the love of God and neighbor, is to work on treating the people around us a little better.
So here is a first question I invite you to consider this week. Where in your life does the corruption in your heart become visible? Where in your life can you see the limitations in your ability to love?
I have plenty to choose from. Unfortunately for her, many of them involve Carrie. One is how we spend our leisure time together.
Carrie likes to go out and do fun things. I used to be fun too. But somewhere along the way, I got old and tired and boring. Now I tend to resist whenever Carrie asks me to do anything. Worse yet, I sometimes get resentful. In my very worst moments, I think to myself, if Carrie really loved me, she wouldn’t ask me to do something she knows I don’t want to do. In those moments, the limitations of my love become all too visible to her, and even to me.
So that is the issue I worked on this week. I tried to root out a little of the evil in my heart, and to replace that evil with love, around the issue of how Carrie and I spend our leisure time.
Prayer is an important first step, I suspect a necessary first step for real growth. Prayer can purge our hearts of the evil within us better than anything else I know.
In my own case, it was in prayer that I originally recognized my pettiness around the issue of how Carrie and I spend our leisure time, and I keep praying about it. Each night, I reflect on how I did during the day, confess those moments when I failed, and ask for God’s help in doing better.
But the proof is in the pudding. It is in our day-to-day interactions with others that the good and the bad in our hearts becomes visible.
I have tried two things. I confessed my pettiness to Carrie, and told her I want to do better. That helped. And, in an ongoing way, I try to notice when a petty thought comes up, and then to let it go.
Carrie could tell you better than I if I am making any progress. All I can say is that I am working at it and that it is slow. That is because real change takes time. The evil in our hearts dissipates slowly. Our ability to love grows slowly.
But it can happen. And this is our task as Christian people: to grow in the knowledge and love of God, one day at a time, one step at a time, practicing love as best we can with the people we encounter, offering up our best efforts to God every day, and looking forward to a day when God will so entirely transform us that we will be truly perfect in love.
Thankfully, there is good news along the way. When we love even a bit better, our lives are enriched in every way. It is a trivial example, but one day last week, I actually went out and did fun things with Carrie in a relatively good spirit. She will tell you, that is a minor miracle of God’s grace!
And so on this last Sunday of the summer, I thank God for working on our hearts. I thank God for the invitation to do our own work as well. And I pray that we can all grow in love until we reach the full stature of Christ. In his name. Amen.
 This scene comes from “Dear White People,” volume two, chapter two.