On a Change of Heart
[Deut.4:1-2, 6-8; Jam.1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk.7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]
In the 1997 film ‘As Good as It Gets’, Jack Nicholson plays the part of Melvin Udall, a writer who thinks he’s an expert on love because he’s written 62 romantic novels.
In reality, however, he’s a lonely man who’s obsessed with his cleanliness. He’s constantly washing his hands and avoiding people and dogs. And he’s thoughtlessly cruel. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that knowing about love and staying clean just aren’t enough, for it’s the heart that really counts.
Like so many in our society today, Melvin Udall thinks that appearance is everything. But even children know that appearances can deceive.
Some years ago in Shanghai, my wife and I bought a nice blue and white tea set. However, we didn’t notice the seller switch cups when he packed it, and we arrived home to find a broken piece. Clearly, his smile was fake.
In Mark’s Gospel today, some Pharisees are angry with Jesus because his disciples have been seen eating without first washing their hands. ‘Why don’t your disciples follow the traditions of the elders?’ they ask.
Now, these Pharisees aren’t truly concerned about hygiene. What they really want is for everyone to obey their rules.
The Bible doesn’t say that everyone must wash their hands. It only specifies that priests must wash before going into the temple sanctuary for worship (Ex.30:17-21). By Jesus’ time, however, handwashing before meals had become commonplace and everyone was expected to do the same.
Jesus is annoyed by the Pharisees’ complaint, and he quotes from Isaiah, ‘this people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations’ (Is.29:13).
What he’s saying is that these Pharisees aren’t serious about their faith, because handwashing won’t bring anyone closer to God. These men are only interested in their petty rules.
With these words, Jesus is challenging us to go beyond the superficial, to recognise that our hearts and souls are where God lives, and where love and compassion begin.
Sometimes, what this requires is a change of heart.
The great storyteller Jeffrey Archer tells the story of Stoffel van den Berg, a talented South African cricketer who was born in Capetown.
His family had migrated from Holland in the 18th century, and they lived very privileged lives. [i]
Stoeffel was very supportive of apartheid, and at the age of 30 was preparing for a career in politics. ‘I don’t understand why the government doesn’t hang Mandela and his cronies,’ he once told his friends.
One day in 1989, while rushing to a campaign meeting, he had a head-on car crash. When he regained consciousness several weeks later, a surgeon explained that the driver of the other vehicle had died soon after arriving at the hospital.
‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ he said, ‘because moments later, your heart stopped beating, too. It was your luck that the dead driver’s wife agreed to a heart transplant from her husband to you.’
‘But doctor, wasn’t he black?’ Stoeffel asked in disbelief.
The doctor replied that the black man’s widow had simply said, ‘I can’t see why both of them have to die, if one of them can live.’
‘How long have I got?’ Stoeffel asked.
‘Three years, possibly four, if you take it easy,’ he replied.
After leaving hospital, Stoeffel went to meet that widow in the poor black township of Crossroads, outside Capetown. She refused all the help he offered. ‘Perhaps you and your child would like to come and live with us,’ he suggested.
But she replied, ‘No, thank you, master.’
That same day, with the support of his wife, Stoeffel quit his job and withdrew all his savings. Thereafter, every day he went down into that shantytown, teaching children English in a makeshift school. In the afternoons, he taught them cricket and rugby, and in the evenings, he roamed the streets encouraging teenagers to stay away from crime and drugs.
Four years later, and only days before Nelson Mandela was elected president, Stoeffel died. He had played his part in liberating a downtrodden people. Of the two thousand people who attended his funeral, more than half were black.
Our world considers image more valuable than substance, but it’s the heart that really counts. The heart is the source of all our thoughts, words and deeds.
If our heart is clean and noble, then all that flows from it will be clean and noble, too.
God knows who we really are. Perhaps it’s time for a change of heart.
[i] Jeffrey Archer, To Cut a Long Story Short. Pan Books, London. 2010.