Father Donald Senior, CP

Sept. 6: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

‘Harden not your hearts’

Ez 33:7-9; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

The imagery of the Bible has left a deep imprint on our language. The response Psalm 95 captures one memorable image: “Harden not your hearts,” a turn of phrase that appears over 100 times in the Bible.

Jesus uses it himself in Mark’s Gospel when the chronically dull disciples did not understand about the multiplication of the loaves and missed the wonder of his rescuing them in the midst of the storm: “for their hearts were “hardened,” the evangelist explains.

The phrase appears several times in the Old Testament. During the exodus, God is frustrated by his people’s “hardness of heart.” This happens in the incident at Meribah, when Moses and the people doubted God’s providence to bring them water in the desert.

In modern Western societies, the heart often stands for the seat of emotions. When something is heartfelt, it touches us deeply. We can get brokenhearted if a love relationship fails. “Have a heart,” we might plead to someone indifferent to our pain. Or we say, “Don’t be so hardhearted,” when someone seems unmoved by acute suffering and loss.

The image of the heart in the Bible captures some of this feeling, but the primary meaning of the heart has to do with understanding and choosing. The human heart is that deep center out of which we respond to people and events. It is the place where our decisions and commitments are formed. 

The prophet Ezekiel perfectly captures the biblical meaning of this image. Despite the sins of the people, God promises to give them new life: “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances and keep them … you will be my people and I will be your God” (Ez 36:26-28).

That is the prayer we hear in this Sunday’s response Psalm 95: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Having a responsive heart, a heart of flesh and not of stone, strikes me as the underlying motif of our readings this Sunday. We are urged to be responsive, not to be indifferent or hardhearted.

The first reading, also from Ezekiel, minces no words in speaking about the need for tough love toward someone who is self-destructive. The prophet, called a “watchman for the house of Israel,” is warned to listen carefully to God’s words and if we see someone involved in behavior that harms them or others, they are to be warned and cared for. We cannot be indifferent or unmoved, with hearts of stone.

In the second reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul also speaks of being responsive, but in a more positive tone, by fostering a spirit of compassion and mutual love among those in the community: “Brothers and sisters, owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” 

Like Jesus does in the Gospels, God’s commandments can be reduced to this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” No stone hearts here.

The Gospel passage for today also deals with the need to respond to others with care. We hear Jesus’ teaching about dealing with disputes in the community. A common-sense process is proposed. If a brother or sister has caused serious harm, the injured person is to take the initiative and try to reconcile. But if the guilty party resists, then others in the community need to intervene. 

This may lead to the guilty party having to leave the community, but they remain an object of the community’s care and concern. “Treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector,” the very ones Jesus reached out to in compassion in the Gospel narrative.  

True followers of Jesus are never content with hearts of stone. At a time when so much suffering is all around us, we need to rouse our hearts of flesh.


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