The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE BEATITUDES: BLESSED ARE THE PURE IN HEART

Delivered 9/28/08
Text: Matthew 5:1-12 ; Psalm 51:1-10
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Let's see. There is the economic meltdown and a barely averted depression (we hope). There are the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plus the possibility of a war with Iran, and even a newly-belligerent Russia, depending upon who gets elected. And who can forget the Islamic militants in dozens of places ready to pounce at any opportunity. There is an energy crisis that is threatening to bankrupt us. We have emerging economic powerhouses in China and India that threaten to overwhelm us. We face climate change and its concomitant tornados and typhoons, freezes and floods. There are hovering epidemics and a health care system that leaves millions at risk. We have our American schools deteriorating both academically and physically, a national infrastructure that has seen much better days. So how are YOU doing? OK? Are you happy?

For what it's worth, the USA is number 16 in world happiness. (1) We rank ahead of more than 80 countries, but below 15 others in happiness levels, according to new World Values Survey data released in the July issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Denmark tops the list of surveyed nations, along with Puerto Rico and Colombia. A dozen other countries, including Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada and Sweden also rank above us. Listen:
Though happiness levels are rising in the world as a whole, the report comes at an interesting time for Americans, when recent public opinion polls report striking dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. affairs. According to a public opinion poll released by the Pew Research Center in April, 2008, some 81 percent of Americans say they believe the country is on the "wrong track." The response is the most negative in the 25 years pollsters have asked the question. In addition to the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism, observers contribute high dissatisfaction to talk of potential recession, home foreclosure rates and unemployment.
In light of all the turmoil in the economy lately, I am reminded of another survey a couple of years ago on MSNBC. It told of studies focused on what makes people happy which concentrated on economic issues. Hear what they reported:
A growing body of research on the 'economics of happiness' proposes that material wealth is overrated. These...researchers say... 'The problem we have found is that as gross domestic product has gone up, happiness doesn't go up with it.' One study based on interviews of 100,000 people over thirty years concludes that despite sharp improvements in living standards, 'the USA has, in aggregate, apparently become more miserable over the last quarter of a century.' (2)
Apparently, STUFF - a bigger TV or a better car or a growing stock portfolio - does not make you any happier. Good thing. With what we are currently going through, we are all likely to have lots less stuff than before anyway.

OK. Then what does make us happy? Well, Jesus has something to say about that. A lot, as a matter of fact. We find his keys to happiness in these Beatitudes that we have been studying, these eight "Blessed are's" that can just as legitimately be translated as "Happy are's" when we have our spiritual head on straight.

Granted, there is nothing natural about feeling happy for being poor in spirit - realizing our own impoverished condition before a holy God. There is nothing natural about feeling happy in the midst of mourning. There is nothing natural in our dog-eat-dog society to feel happy about being meek, gentle. It is equally unnatural for us to feel happy about a hunger and thirst for righteousness when society tells us our appetites should be considerably less lofty. In a culture that is always wondering who will be next to be voted off the island, it is unnatural to feel an inclination to be merciful. This is all upside-down, inside-out. And now we come to "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

This one is a beautiful Beatitude, though, isn't it? There is something warm and gentle and appealing about the word "pure." And, of all the senses, the one we appreciate most is sight, and what better sight could there be than the sight of God. When we hear, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God," the picture comes to mind of an innocent cherub, hands together in an attitude of prayer, a Mona Lisa half-smile on the face with eyes focused generally heavenward. It surely does look pure...but it also looks a bit unreal.

Analyze the words with me. Pure. What does "pure" mean? In our society, in a religious context, we tend to think of it as sinless. In a social context, someone is thought of as "pure" if he or she has never had sex (or at least they used to be; I'm not sure if the definition still holds). In a scientific context we think of something as "pure" when nothing else is mixed with it. Some of us who are old enough recall those old Ivory Soap ads that ran for years claiming that it was 99 and 44/100th's percent pure. That all sounded most impressive until a chemist pointed out that such a percentage was not very pure at all. At any rate, our contemporary understanding of the word involves something that is unadulterated with any other substance.

Good, because that is basically the way that Jesus' listeners also understood it. They thought of pure as clean, as for example, clothes that had been washed. They thought of pure in terms of purging extraneous elements (chaff from wheat, for example). They thought of pure as meaning "nothing added," as for example, no water added to wine or milk. As I say, their idea of pure was much the same as ours.

One other note, the Greek word that we find in our New Testament (katharos) which is translated as "pure" has the connotation of cleaning up something that was previously UNclean. It is the root for our English word "catharsis." It is also a grace-filled word for those who want their heart pure but are afraid it is too late. Katharos says its is never too late.

What about "heart?" To us, of course, we understand heart as that organ in the body which pumps the blood. But we also use it in other ways. We say something like, "You've broken my heart," and mean that our emotions have been profoundly affected. We ask someone to "Have a heart," and call for sympathetic understanding. We read English history and come across Richard the Lionhearted and know that heart is used there as a synonym for courage. We speak of knowing something "in our heart" and mean that our intuition has come into play. We mean much more with heart than just the organ that keeps the circulation going, and that in spite of all our scientific enlightenment.

If you move things back 2,000 years, again you will find things not significantly different. Of course, they might not have had as much knowledge about physiology, but all the others about emotion, understanding, intuition and the like were there just like they are today. In fact, even more so. To the ancients, the heart was the seat of all being, the center of the entire personality, the source of the will. Over and over again, the scripture uses heart to indicate everything internal to an individual that controls action. (3)

Now if we combine those thoughts about PURE and about HEART, our perception of what Jesus meant by "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" becomes much clearer. He is not recommending an "eyes to the sky" kind of lifestyle. He is simply saying that you will only be truly happy when the things that motivate you...your personality, your will...are not having to battle a lot of extraneous material. William Barclay translates the Beatitude as "Blessed is the man whose motives are always entirely unmixed, for that man shall see God." (4)

But one thing is for certain: this Beatitude is just as unnatural as all the others we have studied. Almost everything we do can be tinged by mixed motives. Some folks give large amounts of money to charitable institutions - to churches, hospitals and so on - and they give it because they genuinely care about being helpful. But even in the most philanthropic, there tends to be an element of self-gratification, the kind that enjoys the good words, the pats on the back, and the warm feelings from those who hear about the gifts. That is not a particularly uncharitable thing to say - it is just a fact of life. Perfect philanthropy is as rare as perfect anything else.

The problem of mixed motives is even apparent among those who might seem to be more immune than most. Preachers have it. One might think that there could be no higher motive for going into the pulpit than proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. But in actual practice, there are others. One of my seminary classmates said frankly that he was going into the ministry because he could make a lot of money. I have no idea why he thought that, but I am sure that, by now, he has found out how wrong he was. Another motive for going into the ministry might be the respectable position that pastors enjoy in the community or the praise for a well-prepared sermon heard as the congregation leaves the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. I think it was John Bunyan, after being told that he had preached well that particular day, who responded sadly, "The devil already told me that as I was coming down the pulpit steps." (5) Mixed motives are a problem.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." You remember that a "pure heart" was King David's desire after his horrible sin with Bathsheba. She was already the wife of another man, but David used his power, not only to seduce her but to murder her husband, then marry her quickly to cover up the illegitimacy of the child she was now carrying. But there are no cover-ups before God. (6) David was soon crying out his remorse and repentance - we have his prayer in Psalm 51: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me." Finally, David prays, "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." We know the rest of the story - despite David's awful sin, he went on to be Israel's greatest king and the one from whose lineage would come the Savior of the world.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." What does it mean to SEE GOD? The first thing that comes to mind is physical vision, but that becomes problematic when we realize that two people can look at the exact same scene and come away with totally different descriptions of it.

One night Christie and I were watching television and heard a character say something about DaVinci's painting of the Mona Lisa. He said it was small! There was no mention of beautiful brush strokes, careful composition, that enigmatic smile. All he remembered about it was that it was small. Christie and I smiled at each other as he said it because the first time either of us had the opportunity of seeing the painting in person (we were on our honeymoon 30+ years ago), we had the same reaction - for such a world-renowned piece of artwork, it was positively tiny. I recall walking out of the Louvre Museum in Paris thinking, not what a tremendous thrill it was to have seen one of the most famous paintings in history, but "Gee, it sure was small." The point is simply this: to see something - REALLY see - involves more than just the physical capability.

"Oh, now I see." Aha! Understanding. You sit down with your lawyer to go over a complicated bit of material in a document. It might be couched in all sorts of turgid language for the benefit of a court, but as such, it fails to communicate anything at all to most of us. The attorney patiently interprets all the funny words and legal terminology into plain, common-sense English, finally to have you exclaim, "Oh yes, now I see." The eyes of your understanding have been opened.

This is what Jesus meant when he said the pure in heart will see God. Once we have become truly "pure in heart," we can begin to see things, to understand things, in an entirely new way. No longer do we see God as some terrible Simon Legare sitting up on a cloud somewhere waiting to zap us if we get out of line. Nor do we see God as some kindly old grandfather willing to overlook all the things that we do that are wrong. We begin to SEE GOD, to understand God, as God is - one who loves us and wants the absolute best for us and for this whole wide world as well.

So we turn again to the world. We see the economic mess, the ongoing wars, the energy crisis, the climate change, the unfair health care system, the school problems, the infrastructure deterioration. Are you happy? Not with any of that, we sigh in despair. And we know God is not happy with them either. So we do our best to make a difference as we SEE God, as God gives us guidance.

Alfred Lord Tennyson was once asked what his fondest desire was and he responded, "a clearer vision of God." Perhaps that is the reason that he requested that when his poems would be collected after his death, any publication of them would end with the one called "Crossing the Bar." Its concluding words express it all:

And though from out this bourne of time and place,
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my pilot face to face,
When I have crossed the bar.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will meet the Pilot, they will see God."

Amen!

1. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080630130129.htm

2. Martin Wolk 1/26/05 quoted by Rev. Andrew E. Fiddler, "True Happiness," sermon preached at Trinity on the Green Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT, 1/30/05

3. Jeremiah 17:9, Matthew 6:21; 15:19; Romans 10:10

4. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, CD-ROM, (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996)

5. Barclay, ibid.

6. See II Samuel 11.

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