The word of the day is “pure.” Today with the reading of Titus 1:5-2:1, we begin the reading of Paul’s letter to one of his most trusted co-workers, Titus. In about 63 AD, Paul had appointed this Gentle Christian to oversee the mission in Crete. It was a challenging ministry because the church was young and susceptible to smooth talkers who were deceiving whole households of church members (vs. 11).
In our reading, Paul instructs Titus to censure these false teachers because they are “abominable,” that is, “detestable” (Strong’s 947), “disobedient,” and “unqualified for every good work” (Strong’s 96) (Titus 1:16). Moreover, their motives are “dishonest,” that is “shameful” (Strong’s #150 ) (Titus 1:11).
The Commandments of Men
What are these deceivers teaching? Paul indicates that they are spreading Jewish fables and pronouncing the “commandments of men who turn from the truth” (vs. 11). Time and again, Paul has confronted these “Judaizers.” For example, in Colossians, he wrote, “Why… do you subject yourself to regulations—do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’…—according to the commandments and doctrines of men”? (Colossians 2:23).
The Lord himself challenged these same teachings, saying, “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the traditions of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do” (Mark 7:8). Thus, the Lord charged that the Pharisees were throwing away God’s commandments to hang onto their own tradition (Mark 7:9).
Purity From the Inside
In response, the Lord taught that the purity that the Jewish Law sought to preserve does not come from outside ourselves. It comes from the inside, the inner self, the heart. He said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man…” (Matthew 15:19-20).
This background explains what otherwise would seem like an interruption to Paul’s thoughts. The issue is the source of purity and impurity. As the Lord taught, if these qualities lie inside a person, then what is in the heart makes the difference. Paul it this way, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure” (vs. 15).
A Matter of Perception
We might say that purity and impurity depend on our perception. In this vein, the Lord taught, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). What we perceive depends on the way we see it. If we see the world through clean glasses, then everything will be clear to us. But if we see the world through dirty glasses, all we see will be cloudy to us.
These thoughts explain why our Trisagion prayers begin with the petition that the Holy Spirit would “cleanse us from every impurity.” We pray for this cleansing because purity of heart is freedom from desires, motives, and concerns that darken our minds and pervert our actions. It has only one desire– to know Christ (Philippians 3:10). It has no other intention than to do the will of God. It has no other way than the path of the truth of God.
Thus, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, said in her total purity, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be done to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). To be pure like her is what we seek as we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” (Psalm 51:10). By the Spirit working in us, we struggle against the passions that soil our souls. And we pray that the promise of Christ would be fulfilled even in us: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
St. Gregory Nyssa wrote: “So if by love and right living, you wash off the filth that has become stuck to your heart, the divine beauty will shine forth in you. Think of iron, which at one moment is dark and tarnished and the next, once the rust has been scraped off, shines and glistens brightly in the sun. It is the same with the inner core of man, which the Lord calls the heart. It has been in damp and foul places and is covered in patches of rust; but once the rust has been scraped off, it will recover itself and once more resemble its archetype. And so it will be good, since what resembles the good must be good itself” (St. Gregory of Nyssa “On the Beatitudes”).
May St. Gregory’s words describe our spiritual discipline and its goal in this Nativity Fast.