The Beatitudes – “Blessed are the clean of heart”

We continue with our series on the Beatitudes. Today we examine our Lord’s words, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God”.

We note immediately that the usual rendering of this Beatitude begins, “Blessed are the pure of heart”. The word usually rendered “pure” in this version is the Greek katharos. The word katharos has a slightly different feel and nuance than the Greek word for “pure” (agnos). The word katharos is used to describe the clean water used in the Law’s rites of purification (in Hebrews 10:22), the clean linen shroud in which Christ was buried (in Matthew 27:59), and the clean state of those who have just bathed (in John 13:10). The verb form of katharos is katharizo, meaning “to cleanse”, and it is the word used to describe the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1:42.

This latter use of the term provides a clue to the meaning of the word in this Beatitude. Though foreign to today’s understanding of religion (which consists almost solely of conformity to ethical teaching), much of religion in the ancient world was concerned with ritual purity. In Judaism, for example, if one touched a dead body, one was rendered ritually unclean. If one had a bodily flow (such as from menstruation), one was rendered ritually unclean. If a woman gave birth, she was ritually unclean afterward. In the thought of the Pharisees, coming into contact with ritually contaminated material in the market place rendered one unclean, which is why they took such great care to cleanse their vessels and to wash their hands before a meal (see Mark 7:1-4).

This state of ritual uncleanness had nothing to do with sin—the one who was ritually unclean was not regarded as sinful, rebellious, or in need of repentance. It was just that certain physical circumstances (such as menstruation) had rendered the person ritually disqualified to take part in religious activities such as the offering of a sacrifice.   That is why people like the Pharisees went to such lengths to avoid ritual contamination. To us moderns, such scrupulosity seems almost bizarre, but the categories of clean vs. unclean were basic to Judaism and to all religions of the world at that time. If a person had become ritually unclean, certain actions were required to cleanse the person (such as bathing). Only then could that person approach God in sacrificial worship.

It seems as if our Lord’s words in this Beatitude have this concept of ritual cleanness as their background, and were intended as a polemical response to them. Christ Himself had little time for the Pharisees’ obsessive concern with possible ritual contamination (as said above; see Mark 7:5), and He blamed them for combining such outward scrupulosity with blindness toward the inner state of the soul. Like the hypocrites they were, they were careful to cleanse the outside of the cup and the plate, while inside their souls were full of extortion and greed (Matthew 23:25).

In contrast to this disparity between outer ritual cleanness and inner spiritual filth, Christ focused entirely upon the inner state.   It was the clean of heart who would see God and be able to truly approach Him in worship. Approaching Him in a state of ritual cleanness while one’s heart was unclean was useless and worse than useless. If one cleansed one’s heart of stain, one could confidently approach God. Indeed, the sight of Him was guaranteed.

This is what the Lord meant when He said that the clean of heart would “see” God—not that the Father has a visible form which could be seen by eyes of flesh. The God of Israel was the invisible God, whom no one had seen or could see (Colossians 1:15, John 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:16). By “seeing God” Christ meant “experiencing God”, as when He said that the one who kept His word would never “see death”—i.e. experience death (John 8:51). If we approach the Father with hearts cleansed by repentance, we will experience Him and His transforming grace and power—and not otherwise. The heart uncleansed and impure can never see God or experience His salvation.

This Beatitude therefore reveals the importance of repentance in cleansing the heart. Most of the world remains resolutely impenitent. They refuse to purify their hearts (as James counselled; James 4:8). They therefore remain far from God, and the religion which they imagine brings them close to God remains largely an illusion, a consoling fantasy. The blind man whom Christ healed knew as much: “God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does His will, God listens to him” (John 9:31). We cleanse our hearts when we wash them in our tears, doing works worthy of repentance. That is why Christ said, “Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give alms for those things which are within, and behold!—everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). In other words, a heart cleansed by repentance will beat differently in the world than a heart untouched and uncleansed by repentance. God looks upon the heart, for He made the inside as well as the outside, and it is with the inner heart that we approach the invisible God. If we cleanse our heart, Christ promises that we will see God in salvation, both in this age and in the next.

Next: Blessed are the peace-makers.

 

 

 

8 comments:

  1. Dear Fr Lawrence,
    Fascinating article – as always! I wonder would you see any connection with being clean of heart with the cleansing we receive in Baptism?
    In Christ,
    Fr Patrick

    1. Yes, I think the reference to our hearts sprinkled and our bodies washed in pure water in Hebrews 10:22 is a baptismal reference that speaks to this.

      1. This is a theme, clean vs. unclean, that is crucial to Orthodoxy. If ritual impurity was not an issue to overcome we would lose much of the meaning of Pascha. Ritual impurity is over following Pascha, and therefore Babel is over, as all can become sacred space as temples of the Holy Spirit. Clean/unclean versus unclean/moral ruins the OT understanding of the liability of death. If unclean and moral are equivalents, then death will never be appreciated as an enemy Christ came to overcome. For me, this is one of the most important distinction in the Scripture and should be worked into any catechetical material given/offered. It is part of the Christus Victor theme because death is to be undone, not Total Depravity. The defeat of death is fully monergistic, a sovereign response of God in the fullness of time. Following Pentecost, the times of ignorance are over and now repentance is demanded, and because death and Satan are defeated, the will can operate to a much better degree once faith is in Christ – the death and devil destroyer – now we can much more properly synergize. I just want to affirm and say, Orthodoxy depends on this distinction. It is the basis for blameless passions and blameworthy passions. Death’s motivators are not sinful – having death on you or influencing your thoughts – but they are a liability that will keep you from God. Passions are little more than death being given a priority status as a motivator for behavior, thought, life. Resurrection cures the fear of death and it’s why we have martyrs for Saints, their faith was made/shown to be whole in the face of death.

        To me, the distinction puts theosis in its place and destroys competitor soteriologies. It’s the basis in many ways for the functionality of the will after death and Satan are defeated. It’s our Biblical answer (not alone by any means) to Calvin/Augustinian notions of freedom. Sorry to be long, but I’ve operated with this for some time and it’s encouraging to see it mentioned. Ritual impurity is over, but you as sacred space can be defiled. How to keep God/the Holy Spirit from leaving the Temple: repentance, confession, Eucharistic participation – the temple is cleansed and the presence of God remains. The “do no let your presence depart from me” is fulfilled in repentance and cleansing. I’m so glad you pointed out that the word for pure is clean, as in, clean versus unclean.

        I’ve mentioned it various places before but it addition to this, the story of Naaman and Elisha – taking sacred space home because Israel was holy to the Lord and not the other nations – both of them understood this – reiterates the sacred geography/cleaning/Gentile vs. Jew/etc. Gentiles are always unclean in their uncircumcision. They have no access to God because they are outside the geography and are unprepared ritually, unprepared theologically, etc. But “the times of ignorance God overlooked.” Again, this show the difference between sin as moral transgression, and sin as living in the shadow of death. Once light dawn on those living in the shadows, the moral transgression is not penalized, it is forgiven in repentance. Here sin is only sin if there is knowledge, and here is genuine room for ignorance. I don’t think there’s any clash here with Romans 1. Ignorance leads to bad things, but they can be undone. What hope is here at the same time for the one burdened by their sins.

        God bless you Father,
        Matthew Lyon

        1. Matthew, the Incarnation, Death and Ressurection of our Lord God opened the path of genuine contrition and repentance so that we can be united with Him. Pascha did indeed fulfill the Law and the ritual cleansing it require because now, through repentance the Lord purifies our hearts. That is indicated in Matthew 23:25. Earlier in Matthew 22:37-40, our Lord is even more explicit about the essence of the Law.

  2. Thank you, for posting this Father, our understanding of various concepts around sin, cleanness, righteousness are all affected (often adversely) by established English translations of even a single word. Interestingly the Old English translations render katharos as clean – as well as avoiding both the rather restricted ‘blessed’ and over familiar ‘happy’ at the start of the passage: it was the proto-Anglican Tyndale who first translated it as purity.

  3. Very interesting article! You hit the nail on the head! We need to be repentant of so many things; I think that the Lord helps us to see our sin so that we can repent, even sins that we forgot about. When we receive the sacrament of reconciliation, that is, if we are truly repentant, then we are getting closer to seeing God in our hearts. We must ask God to be merciful to us for we have greatly sinned personally and communally.

  4. Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me….KJV Psalm 51
    Is this what you are writing about.?
    Purging with hyssop would be unpleasant but would create a clean body, too, along with ritual bathing.
    I’m glad that is not necessary now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *