Opening the Word: Heart of the matter

“The heart,” wrote St. John Chrysostom, “is the most noble of all the members of our body.”  

The 20th-century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand observed that in Scripture the heart is often contrasted, not with the will or intellect, but with the body. The heart is “chosen as a representative of man’s inner life” and identified closely with the soul.  

There are some 700 references to the heart in the Bible; the first two are found in Genesis 6, where it states that the wicked “desires” or “thoughts” of man’s heart had grieved the heart of God (see vv. 5-6). Few of the numerous references to the heart have to do with the physical organ, or even with emotions. The heart, in Scripture, is the center and core of a human being; it is a complex and mysterious combination of personality, intellect, character and will. Whereas in modern culture “the heart” is often related to strong feelings, the biblical perspective is far more concerned with moral character. 

This is significant for appreciating today’s readings from Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Luke. Deuteronomy contains a detailed presentation of the Law given to Israelites, culminating in a series of blessings and curses (Chapters 28-30) that God promised would “come upon” the people depending on how well they observed the Law. Not surprisingly, the curses far outweigh the blessing, and today’s reading seems to accept that failure will follow, stating, “when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul.” 

God’s commands, Moses relates to the people, are not mysterious or impossible to follow, but are very near, “already in your mouths and in your hearts.” While the heart is the center of a man’s being, the mouth is the gateway or window to a man’s heart and soul.  

This important concept was used by St. Paul when he told the Romans of the necessity of confessing that Jesus is Lord and believing in “your heart that God raised him from the dead” in order to be saved (see Rom 10:9-10). Far from being an emotional or rash response, this is public action rooted in profound consideration and commitment of the will.  

The question asked of Jesus by the scholar of the law was hostile, meant to test him and expose any weaknesses in his stance regarding salvation. As he often did, Jesus answered the question with questions of his own, as if to say, “You are the recognized scholar; you tell me the answer!” The lawyer demonstrated that he had intellectually mastered the answer. But had his heart absorbed the truth? Could he, like the Psalmist, say, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps 19:8)?  

The scholar sought to justify himself by bringing up a much-debated question: Who really is my neighbor? Some Jews said it included strangers and sojourners (see Lv 19:33-34); others insisted that only members of the Jewish community should be called “neighbors.” Some, such as the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, were heartless because they had long forgotten that the Law was actually about loving God and loving others. 

When religious practice no longer has a transcendent center — that is, a heart seeking after God — it becomes fearful, selfish and merciless. Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will truly live. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.