“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Some years ago, to promote Christ Church New York City, we advertised our service times and locations and our website with words drawn from Psalm 24 on small bottles of hand sanitizer: ‘Clean hands… Pure heart’. While we received some positive responses we were not inundated with newcomers. Rather, I quickly discovered New Yorkers were not particularly enamored by the idea of a ‘pure heart’. Pure hands, yes. Pure hearts, no!
SO WHAT IS JESUS SAYING?
In the light of this attitude it’s tempting to think that Jesus is thoroughly unrealistic. Yet we need to remember that while his primary audience for his Sermon on the Mount consisted of ‘followers’, vast crowds were present that day when he spoke. Jesus knew that because his words are true and because men and women are made in the image of God, his teaching is beneficial for everyone.
Indeed, the present tenses of his statements that day, tell us that Jesus is saying that purity is something we, men and women, should aim at now. Certainly, those who call themselves God’s people and who look forward to the perfection of the coming kingdom, should already be preparing for it. Life in the new heaven and the new earth should not surprise us by its purity, but be the perfecting of what God has already begun in our lives.
PURE IN HEART
In the light of the broader context of the Beatitudes, let me suggest that Jesus is not speaking about an outward conformity to rules or even simply an inward purity or righteousness – although these elements are certainly biblical. Rather, as New Testament commentators such as RVG Tasker and John Stott have pointed out, pure in heart here is primarily a reference to single-mindedness in the way we relate to God and to one another.
To pick up the theme of Psalm 24, the pure in heart are those who do not serve false gods – the gods of wealth, success or self-interest. Nor are their lives shaped by lies and deception.
The pure in heart are characterized by sincerity and genuineness. They are without guile, before God and people around them. As John Stott put it, ‘their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them’.
So this Beatitude asks us awkward questions: Do we let our circumstances determine our response in each situation – what mask we might wear, what half-truths we might speak, what role we might play? Are we known and respected as a person of integrity, someone to be trusted, someone whose heart is pure?
The searching nature of Jesus’ words here and the promise attached to them are challenging. For they remind us of the attitude of mind and the quality of life we need to work at living now by the grace of God. For as John Stott succinctly put it, ‘only the pure in heart will see God, see him now with the eye of faith and see his glory in the hereafter, for only the utterly sincere in heart can bear the dazzling vision in whose light the darkness of deceit must vanish and by whose fire all shams are burned up’.
Jesus’ words in his Sermon continue to search us. They challenge us to ask whose blessing do we want most of all? Do we look most of all for the blessing that comes from people around us because they perceive us to be successful? Or do we want God’s blessing above anything else in life?