A Radical Sermon – “Pure In Heart” (Matthew 5:8)

Soren Kierkegaard studying

Soren Kierkegaard studying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have to admit a certain frustration here. As I read the beatitudes, this is THE beatitude that explains/allows/empowers all of the others. And, so, in my own thinking I would expect to see this particular verse (a) at the very beginning, (b) in the middle as sort of a high point, or (c) at the very end as the pinnacle of Jesus’ teaching. But, try as I might, verse 8 just does not fit any of those man-made criteria. So, I will approach the verse as another of the beatitudes, equal to the others as Jesus presented them, but on another level I will still hold to the idea that this verse holds a very special key to understanding and applying the others.

I have had two “teachers” who have helped me understand this verse. The first is the writing of James. Twice in the book of James we read of the “double-minded” person. In fact, James is the only New Testament writer who uses the term “double-minded.” The first is in 1:8 when he is writing about the person who prays to God while doubting. It is not clear whether the doubt is concerning the existence of a God who can do anything, or whether it concerns the assurance that one will actually receive what one prays for. In either circumstance the prayer is offered by a “double-minded” person – one who thinks out of both sides of his mind, as it were. The first prays (an example of faith) to a God he is not sure exists (an example of doubt). The second prays to a God he believes exists, but his prayer is thwarted because although he is praying, he does not truly believe in the reality that he will receive what he prays for. His prayer basically amounts to wishful thinking.

The second occurrence of the word “double-minded” appears in 4:8. I believe it is this passage that most clearly illuminates what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 5:8. Notice the similarity in language. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and James says, “Purify your hearts, you double-minded!” Here, clearly, James is speaking to individuals whose minds are going two (or more) different directions. The solution, according to James, is to “purify” their hearts, or in other words, to focus on only one thing. Devote yourself to God and him alone. If you have your mind focused on God and his will, you will have a “pure” or undiluted mind. You will not be “double-minded.” You will be single-minded, or pure minded.

This then leads me to my second teacher, Soren Kierkegaard. I only have one book by Kierkegaard, and it is entitled, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Now, I certainly do not suggest that reading Kierkegaard is easy, but if you have an opportunity to read intently and quietly, I suggest you read this book. It is ultimately a book for the preparation of one’s heart to receive communion, but it is an intense (and intensive) study in the meaning of the phrase “purity of heart.” The answer that Kierkegaard develops is fundamentally that of James 4:8 – the pure of heart are those who only will one thing, and that is the reign of God.

Matthew 5:8 (along with all of the other beatitudes) has been lowered to the status of a moralistic teaching, something akin to Aesop’s fables. They are often regarded as nothing more than Jesus’ moralistic ramblings. No passage of Scripture has been treated in a more deprecating fashion. The beatitudes are so much more! Yes, on one strikingly simple level the beatitudes are sound instructions for a moral life. But to leave them there is to destroy their ultimate value. And none of the beatitudes is more violently abused when treated only as a moralistic teaching than Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart.”

Jesus in not giving a moralistic command about “be careful little eyes what you see” or some vague guideline about whether or not a Christian can watch an “R” rated movie. What he is saying is that those who will see God are those who are completely and totally committed to His reign. The “pure in heart” are those whose hearts are only focused on one thing. Jesus echoes this so many times during his teaching career – seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, a man cannot serve both God and mammon (financial success), do you love me – feed my sheep. There can be no “doubling up” with Jesus. We cannot have a mixture of this and that, of spirit and the world, of God and of Satan.

Now, the end result may be the same. If our eyes are turned only upon God and His kingdom, then we will certainly “be careful little eyes what we see.” If we have only one goal in mind, that of furthering the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then we will of our own accord draw the line with which entertainment we fill our eyes, ears, hearts and minds. But (and this is critical to understand) the morals will come as a result of our pure mind (a mind with a single focus), and not as a way to achieve some good behavior that will demand God’s blessing. It is not within mankind to direct his steps. In fact, if we focus on the blessing we are in reality betraying that our mind is not pure! The pure of heart and mind only want to serve God and to further His kingdom. The blessing is that they will be able to “see God.”

There is a great irony in trying to turn the beatitudes into simple moralistic teachings. Turning the beatitudes into some kind of Herculean list of ethics means that  a person focuses on themselves and their ability to achieve a special relationship with God. The person immediately becomes “double minded.” However, viewed as Jesus taught them, as a description of the radical new life of discipleship, these characteristics achieve their true power. They reveal that a human is unable to achieve any of them. But one who is empowered by the Holy Spirit and who trusts implicitly in the grace of God is able to receive all the blessings – because they are pure in heart. They can “see God” because it is only God that they are looking for.

In addition to all the “radical” things that we have been discussing so far, that is truly a “radical” way to view our relationship with God.

About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on January 21, 2013, in Christ and Culture, Spiritual Formation, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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