In the late sixties, when tensions broke out between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Mark Lenaghan’s family found themselves in the middle of it. Though they were not politically active, they were a Catholic family in a mostly Protestant neighborhood. Though they had always gotten on well with their neighbors, their home became the target of vandalism. One day, a group of thugs stormed through their front door and took over their home for several days. It was the last straw. They had to abandon their home and move to a less violent neighborhood.
However, Mark never forgot the feelings of helplessness and rage he experienced while living in his old neighborhood. He became convinced that the only way to set things right in his country was through violence. So he joined the Irish Republican Army, commonly known as the IRA. They were committed to bringing about total independence for Ireland from England by violent means.
During his training, he was taught that before you can kill a man with a gun or a bomb, you have to kill him within your heart. Before you can pull a trigger, you must have already found it within you to hate and to want to destroy someone else. Violence comes not just from fists, guns and bombs, but from the human heart.
Eventually, through God’s grace, he came to see that violence was not the solution to his country’s problems and learned to forgive those who had hurt him and his family and to seek reconciliation. He came to realize that the conflicts in his country came not just from the political structures but from the human heart. Every person was free to make the choice to forgive or to seethe with rage. Everyone was free to be reconciled with the one who hurts him or to get even. When each person forgives from his or her heart, there would be peace.
Jesus has the same message in today’s gospel regarding the human heart. While the Pharisees are concerned with outward appearances and actions, He teaches His disciples that religion is primarily an affair of the heart. It is not what we let into our body that defiles us but what we let into our soul. If our minds are filled with thoughts of love, peace and kindness, we will be loving, peaceful and kind people. But if our heart is seething with resentment, bitterness and hatred, we will be resentful, bitter and hateful people. No amount of ritual will do us any good if we are not willing to embrace the goodness, truth and beauty that Jesus came to bring.
At the root of all society’s ills is not just inadequate laws or incompetent institutions. The real problems are hearts that are unwilling to love. We have seen this so clearly in our own society. Though we have laws to regulate financial institutions, greedy people find ways around those regulations in order to make unjust profits. Though we have laws to protect consumers from deceitful practices, unjust people always find a loophole to exploit. No law can change someone from a greedy person into a generous person. No institution can change a bigot into someone capable of loving all people without distinction. Each one of us is free to either embrace love or reject it. Each of us is free to either accept truth or deny it.
Does that mean that we should give up trying to reform our political institutions or work to end violence and discrimination? Of course not. What it does mean is that the problem is not just out there somewhere. The problem is not just with other people. The problem is within me. The problem is in my heart. Until my heart changes, the world cannot change. Until I embrace forgiveness, there can be no peace.
If each of us were to take a long, hard look at our hearts, we would all admit that there is a mixture of love and hate, tenderness and resentment, courage and fear within. How can we begin to change our heart? By welcoming Jesus there. He sees us as we really are. He can look within our hearts and see what needs changing. And through His Holy Spirit He can begin to affect real conversion and growth in holiness. It does not happen overnight and usually requires no small amount of suffering. But it can and will happen if we turn to Him and sincerely ask for His help.
The civil rights activist, Rev Martin Luther King JR, said that we cannot change others unless we love them. Knowing that we cannot love another person unless we have forgiven him or her in our heart, we can take his statement one step further. I cannot change another person unless I have changed myself.
Saint James tells us in the second reading that the pure, undefiled religion that God desires is that we care for widows and orphans. But I cannot begin to care for the needy unless I have overcome the greed in my heart that keeps me from being generous and the bigotry that makes me judge the poor.
Real change is possible. The world can be transformed through love. However, it is not somebody else’s responsibility. It is my responsibility. And it is not just bureaucracies or laws that need fixing, but my heart that needs repair. Until that happens, all our other efforts are in vain. At this Eucharist, the One who has the power to change us comes to us in the form of bread. He enters into communion with us and draws us into union with one another. Strengthened by this Eucharist, healed of our greed, bitterness and anger we can go forth to serve the needy, relieve the oppressed and right the wrong. With hearts renewed and refreshed, we can begin to see a world transformed through love.