For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil intentions: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man. Mar 7:21-23
As I read this passage from the Gospel last Sunday, I tried to emphasize the list of “evil intentions” that Jesus says can “defile a person, and I did so for two reasons. First the catalogue of vices gains intensity by their being juxtaposed: the conglomeration of these evils makes an especially repellent impression on the hearer. But also you should know that lists are important in the Bible; they’re everywhere: ten commandments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, eight beatitudes and many others, as when Saint Paul identifies fifteen “works of the flesh” which he contrasts with nine “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal 5.19 ff). Such lists are not random, but the result of a long period of sifting and arranging the text. Hence, as Saint Augustine reminds us, every word is significant. Saint Jerome goes further, in that he sees in the very order of the words a clue to their meaning (Ep. 57). It behooves us, then, to take a close look at the evils that Jesus says defile the human person. There are twelve vices in the catalogue, divided into two groups. The first six identify crimes done in secret, which the perpetrator want to hid from public view, while the second group consists of public actions performed to attract as much attention as possible.
Group I begins with “fornication.” In the Bible this term is used for any sexual impropriety—whatever is illicit, immoral or perverse. Such actions are devastating to the victim and witness to the depravity of the perpetrator . . . as we Catholics know all too well, given the scandals that have lately rocked the Church. Theft, another would-be-secret act comes next, followed by two sorts of theft: murder, which is, as we say, taking someone’s life, and then adultery, by which the offending party usurps the rights of his—or her—spouse. For Saint Paul says, “The husband does not have power over his own body, but the wife does,” and vice versa (1 Cor 7.4). Avarice, too, could be classified as potential robbery, in that ruthless greed is insatiable and dissatisfied with the possessions that come to it legitimately. Saint Paul says that it is “the root of all evil” (1Tim 6.10). Number six, which closes the section, is “wickedness,” used here by Our Lord to summarize the malice of the first five sins.
The second group is composed of actions that are performed openly. Deceit, e.g., is a lie, the projections of a false image of oneself or perhaps advertising a product that one wants to flog on a gullible public. It seems to have reached gigantic proportions today, with fake news and “alternate truth” or “alternate facts.” Licentiousness, too, is general in its impact, as evinced in the indecency that floods the internet to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Envy and slander, the following entries, describe an intensification of deceit in the defamation of an innocent public figure. And then, finally we have the greatest of all sins, pride, the fault that caused the fall of the angels and, as Jesus warns us, is a particularly strong temptation among religious people. Our Lord’s final comment, said I would imagine with a sigh, captures the essence of them all: they’re “folly.”
You may have noted that, surprisingly, there is no mention of sins against religion, as in uttering blasphemy, desecrating the Sabbath or defending atheism. The reason for this lack can be found, I think, in a single word: “defile.” It is this word that Jesus uses to introduce and conclude the passage: “Things that come out of a person defile him”; and then, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” In the Bible, to be defiled is to be disqualified from participating in the worship of God. So you see, the recognition of these evils in himself prevents a person from approaching God. The soil must be harrowed by repentance to be free of weeds in order for the good seed of the Gospel to take root and bear fruit, thirty, sixty and even a hundredfold