Last week, I wrote about the mystery of Christ telling the healed paralytic to pick up his mat—his stretcher—and take it home with him. The passage had become a long lectio for me, lasting more than a day. In fact, this week, I am still focused on this passage, though this time on a different line.

Because every line of Scripture—every single line—is there for a purpose, and has something to teach us.

So, if you don’t mind re-reading the passage with me . . .

When the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves,
“Who is this who speaks blasphemies?
Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply,
“What are you thinking in your hearts?”
(Luke 5:21-22)

It’s the question that can indict us at any moment of any day, no matter how good or how bad: “What are you thinking in your heart?”

It’s a convicting line, one that we should probably ask ourselves in those small moments when we are going about our business—fixing supper for the family, socializing at work, or even when we are bringing Scripture into an encounter with another. What is in our hearts as we do these things? Are we happy to cook for the family, or more resentful than we care to admit? Are we socializing at work because we just need a break, or because we want to hear some gossip about another, or because we think it will help us to get ahead? Are we using a scriptural reference because we sincerely want to help someone broaden their perspective? Or do we just need a handy hammer with which to beat another down and feel better about ourselves?

In that particular case, “What are you thinking in your heart?” can extend itself into why we choose the scriptural references we do, and when that choice says much more about ourselves than anything else.

The question, asked differently, is “What is my motivation here? . . . Why am I doing this?”

We too often carry about a heart full of darkness, cynicism, and snark, a heart all-too-eager to commence scoffing—a heart that is ultimately disappointed if the opportunity to do so is snatched away by reason or belated compassion.

What were the Scribes and Pharisees thinking, in their hearts?

It’s very likely they were thinking, “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins? Only God can do that!”

And perhaps they were thinking, “Who are these presumptuous creatures, coming in from the roof, so certain that their friend, this nobody, deserved such notice?”

We can imagine them thinking that way, because it is so typically how we think:

  • “Who does she think she is?”
  • “What makes him think he has this coming to him?”
  • “How dare they push themselves forward, as though they are so much better/more important than others.”

And of Jesus, perhaps what was in their hearts is what lies so often in our own: a sense of resentment, born of jealousy: “Look at him; attracting attention to himself. Look at him playing to the crowds and contradicting authority and convention, as though he is above it, too smart for it, too . . . cool.”

It’s unlikely the churchmen were thinking, “Could this be the Messiah, of whom Scripture has foretold, saying the deaf will hear, the lame will walk?”

Even among the crowd of people gathered and hoping to get something for themselves—or simply to see something sensational—did more than a few really consider whether this rabbi was the Anointed one?

Because even for believers, it’s often hard to comprehend holiness in our midst, especially when it looks so ordinary and human.

We put a lot of expectations upon holiness. We assume it will behave a certain way, use specific words, and never, ever bear a hint of what might bring scandal. We think we know what holiness would and should look like: all the rules and courtesies seen to; few egregious offenses; seldom even a mistake, either in action or understanding.

We put enough expectations upon holiness to be ever-shocked at a suggestion of imperfection, or sin. But that only means we have been looking at the world through eyes willing to be deluded, rather than Godly eyes.

Because God is never surprised, or shocked, or scandalized by sin. God knows us too well for any of that, much better and more intimately than we know ourselves.

Which is why Christ Jesus asks the question outright: What are you thinking in your heart? He wants them to understand that their own hearts, no matter how holy they try to be, bear repeated examination to keep them honest. That’s how holiness moves beyond the superficial and becomes more than mere pretense, and how it remains humble.

Because what is truly holy may be wise, or wealthy, or beautiful, but it must also possess an element of true humility—enough humility to look at the actions of others and assume only the most positive of motives; to look at people lowering a crippled man through a roof and not think, “How dare they?” or “Who do they think they are?” or “How presumptuous!”, but “See how great is their faith . . .” and then to ask where our own has gone.

The Scribes and Pharisees were that way. They may have been exalted, and they may have possessed many sincerely good qualities, but they lacked humility (‘Thank you, God, that I’m not like . . . that guy“), and so what they thought, what resided in their hearts, meant whatever holiness was within them was stunted, limited, prevented from deepening into real saintliness.

Here’s the thing, though . . . we see the Pharisees in their faults. We see what they lack. And when we do, we tend to feel pretty good about ourselves in comparison to them. We believe that had we been there—had we been part of the crowd watching all of this—we’d have recognized faith and hope at work within the actions before us. That we would have at once recognized Jesus’ holiness and his Godhood.

Well . . . maybe. But how often do we approach Jesus at Mass, annoyed with someone who sits next to us, or in the pew ahead or behind us? How often do we return to our seat, instantly unmindful of Who and What we have just taken into our bodies—much more than bread and wine—or of the commingling of Flesh and Blood being joined to our own?

What are we thinking in our hearts in that moment?

What are we thinking in our hearts most of the time?

We spend so much time taking stock of how we are “doing” in our lives, both materially and spiritually.

What Jesus is asking is for us to take stock less of what we are “doing” and more in how we are “being.”

What we are thinking in our hearts is the key to knowing the answer to that important question.