Monday, February 7, 2011

The Telltale Heart: Reflections on Matthew

When I read this text from Matthew 5:21-37 about anger, adultery, careless severing of marital bonds and frivolous oaths, I think about hearts. What's in your heart?

Valentine's Day evokes the image of those little candy hearts we used to hand out in elementary school that were supposed to reveal what was in your heart to someone else. They had messages on them, like "Be Mine," "Yours Forever," "True Love," "Hugs and Kisses," "Ever After," "So Fine," and "Hot Stuff." The logos now include "Text Me," "E mail me," and "U R Special." During the past few weeks you can't have gone into any store without seeing hearts, flowers, and chocolates. That may be partly why, when I read this text from Matthew 5:21-37 about anger, adultery, careless severing of marital bonds, and frivolous oaths, I think about hearts.

I think it's deeper than that though. Jesus' teachings in the gospels about matters of the heart (lev in Hebrew, kardia in Greek) form the frame within we are to read these verses.

In the screenplay of the gospels, such teaching scenes usually occur when the Pharisees are on stage with him, primed for conflict. In response to the lawyer who seeks to test him, he affirms that the heart of Torah (a collation of Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18) is loving the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul and all our strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Lk. 10:27).

When the disciples express concern that Jesus has offended the Pharisees with his critique of their ritual purity laws (Mt. 15:12), he asks them, "Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile" (Mt. 15:17-8; Mk. 7:15).

In criticizing the quest for material wealth, Jesus says that "where our treasure is, there will our heart be also" (Mt. 6:21 and Lk. 12:34). In lambasting the religious elite for their hypocrisy, he demands, "How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt.12:34-5; Lk. 6:45).

In painting a picture of the life pleasing to God, Jesus offers this beatitude: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt. 5:8).

Jesus in these teachings is standing on the foundation of prior teachings from Hebrew Scriptures about the heart as the inner source of outer actions, subject to the good or evil influence of imagination. He's asking, "What is in your heart?"

When my three siblings and I were growing up, my dad, who was quite the humorist, used to ask us when we were disagreeing with something he had said or asked us to do: "Are you contradicting me?" It took me a while to realize I was being set up. There is no right answer to this question. If you say no, you are contradicting him. If you say yes, you're being insubordinate.

In the six "antitheses" of Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus is saying no and Jesus is saying yes, both at the same time. "No, I'm not contradicting the heart and spirit of Torah." (This is the whole point of 5:17-20. Jesus has come to fulfill, not abolish the law and the prophets.) "Yes, I am challenging interpretations of the law that are not consistent with its heart: whole-hearted love of God and neighbor."

Expand your heart

First, feel from the heart. What is in the intellect or reason? It goes a few steps and there it stops. But through the heart comes inspiration. Love opens the most impossible gates; love is the gate to all the secrets of the universe....

Expand your hearts and hopes, as wide as the world. Deep as the ocean, broad as the infinite skies, that is the sort of heart we want.

Work is worship

Power and things like that will come of their own. Put yourself to work, and you will find such tremendous power coming to you that you will feel it hard to bear. Even the least work done for others awakens the power within; even thinking the least good of others gradually instils in the heart the strength of a lion. I love you all ever so much, but I wish you all to die working for others....

It is you only who are in this world lying prostrate today like inert matter. You have been hypnotised. From very old times, others have been telling you that you are weak, that you have no power, and you also, accepting that, have for about a thousand years gone on thinking, "We are wretched, we are good for nothing." (Pointing to his own body) This body also is born of the soil of your country; but I never thought like that. And hence you see how, through His will, even those who always think of us as low and weak, have done and are still doing me divine honour. If you can think that infinite power, infinite knowledge and indomitable energy lie within you, and if you can bring out that power, you also can become like me.

An equal approach

The essential thing is renunciation. Without renunciation, no one can pour out his whole heart in working for others. The man of renunciation sees all with an equal eye and devotes himself to the service of all. Doesn't our Vedanta also teach us — himself to the service of all? Doesn't our Vedanta also teach us to see all with an equal eye? Why then do you cherish the idea that your spouse and children are your own, more than others? At your very threshold, Narayana himself in the form of a poor beggar is dying of starvation! Instead of giving him anything, would you only satisfy the appetites of your family with delicacies? 

Set an example

Why not do as much as lies within your power? Even if you cannot give to others for want of money, surely you can at least breathe into their ears some good words or impart some good instruction. Or does that also require money?

So work, my boys, work! The rough part of the work has been smoothened and rounded; now it will roll on better and better every year. Rejoice that you have done so much. When you feel gloomy, think what has been done within the last year. How, rising from nothing, we have the eyes of the world fixed upon us now. Not only India, but the world, is expecting great things of us.

Are you sincere? Unselfish even unto death? And loving? Then fear not; not even death. Onwards, my lads! The whole world requires light. It is expectant! India alone has that light not in magic, mummery and charlatanism, but in the teaching of the glories of the spirit of real religion — of the highest spiritual truth. That is why the lord has preserved the race through all its vicissitudes unto the present day. Now the time has come. Have faith that you are all, my brave lads, born to do great things. Let not the barks of puppies frighten you — no, not even the thunderbolts of heaven — but stand up and work!

Wake up and be a servant

Have fire and spread all over. Work, work. Be the servant while leading. Be unselfish, and never listen to one friend in private accusing another. Have infinite patience, and success is yours. I want that there should be no hypocrisy, no roguery. There shouldn't be a breath of immorality, nor a stain of policy which is bad. No shilly-shally, no esoteric blackguardism, no secret humbug, nothing should be done in a corner. Onward, my brave boys — money or no money — men or no men! Have you love? Have you God? Onward and forward to the breach, you are irresistible. Take care! Beware of everything that is untrue; stick to truth and we shall succeed, maybe slowly, but surely. Work as if on each of you depended the whole work. Fifty centuries are looking on you, the future of India depends on you. Work on.

There is success and failure in every work. But there is no salvation for a coward. In my eyes, this world is mere play — and it will always remain as such. Should one spend six long months brooding over the questions of honour and disgrace, gain and loss pertaining to this?