During Black History Month, we can learn much from recalling the words and thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, assassinated 50 years ago for his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement,
Dr. King once addressed the experience so many African Americans had had of being put down, humiliated, abused and denied their rights. To those who felt beaten down and powerless, Dr. King reminded them that there is no shame in being the victim of oppression, because the burden was on the oppressors. Being the victim of violence did not diminish their dignity, but it did diminish and dehumanize those who inflicted violence.
What happens to us is beyond our control, and therefore it cannot affect our moral standing. It is what we do to others that makes a difference in our character. Those who do evil are changed by evil, not those to whom evil is done. Victims retain their innocence and goodness.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a similar distinction when describing the effect of dietary laws. The Pharisees were insisting on ritual purity while ignoring purity of heart. It is not the food that goes into the body and passes through it that defines a person. But what comes out of that person’s heart, from their imagination and motivation is what characterizes them. Anything external cannot define us the way something flowing from us can, expressing our intentions and personal designs.
A heart filled with lust, anger, avarice, envy and pride changes a person. Someone who sees other people only as objects of acquisition and use, as things to control and gain from is corrupted by that attitude.
A heart filled with love, generosity, sympathy and concern for the welfare of the other is transformed by that attitude and the actions that flow from it. This is what human maturity looks like. This is what it means to fulfill the image and likeness of God as our birthright and destiny.