In today’s Gospel we hear Christ tell us that “[T]here is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him." (Mark 7:15)
This message evidentially puzzled the crowds, and the disciples too. And at first it does seem a contradictory message. We commonly think of the threats posed to us as being external ones: crime, natural disaster, famine, disease, violence, terrible and random accidents of one kind or another. Is Jesus suggesting that these aren’t things to worry about? What could He mean by such a suggestion?
It’s only after we dig into it a bit more (and after Jesus gives us a major clue) that we start to uncover the meaning packed into this teaching. What Jesus is telling us is that we need to reexamine just what it is we’re afraid of. We aren’t supposed to live a life governed by fear, but there are definitely some things we should fear for what they can do to us. Conversely, there are things we greatly fear (for what may appear to be either rational or irrational reasons), but maybe we need to rethink how we look at them.
What are the things we should fear? He explains to the disciples, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man." (Mark 7:20-23)
Think of these as “internal,” or “man-made” (as opposed to what “ goes into a man from outside [that] cannot defile him.” (Mark 7:18), and perhaps it becomes easier to understand. Not only that, but other things begin to fall into place.
We often hear people try to explain or excuse their behavior by citing their “environment” as a contributing cause. A lot of times we put this in the context of a criminal pleading for leniency in court, but I think we’re making a mistake if we try to limit it to that context. Take pornography, for example. In this sex-drenched society of ours, it’s pretty hard to avoid it (if you take pornography to encompass the whole range of what once was called “soft-core” or “sexually explicit” material). Anyone would be a fool to suggest that over time this doesn’t begin to have an effect on us. You can make the same case whether you’re talking about sex, violence, diseases such as AIDS and HIV, or the objectification of the individual (which has elements of both of the above included in it).
But do you notice what all these have in common? Each one has, to a certain extent, a man-made element to it. The “evil thoughts” that Christ mentions above - they’re not called the seven deadly sins for nothing. They're all generated from the human heart - from someone's heart, even if not our own. And while many innocent people are hurt, you can’t deny that in some way all this is traced back to someone, somewhere doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. Perhaps we aren't directly responsible for the cause, but we share a world with those who are.
I think the answer to the meaning of today’s Gospel is this: Christ isn’t talking about what can kill our living body, He’s concerned with something much more important and much more dangerous: those things that can kill our souls. How many times does He warn us that it’s not death of the body we must fear, but death of the soul?
And it’s those man-made things that come from within our hearts that cause the most potential harm. For each of these threats - pornography, violence, immorality, objectification - come from some urge lodged within the deepest reaches of our hearts. We all have them, to one extent or another. We may try to suppress them as best we can, with varying degrees of success. But it is only by giving up control of our lives to Christ that we gain control of our emotions.
The moral of the story is what Christ has been teaching us all along, and what He will continue to teach us: don’t worry about the things over which we have no control. Do be concerned about the things over which we do have control - the passions and desires of the human heart. And trust in Him to help us along the way, with the help of Mary and the saints, by providing us with the grace and courage required to handle it.