When I think “radical,” what comes to mind is Che Guevara, the 1960s Marxist revolutionary whose photographic image became a cultural icon. The block print face of Guevara on t-shirts inspired many imitations, from Bart Simpson to Jesus Christ: there’s even a cartoon of Guevara wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt. Something about the image of Guevara caught the imagination of a generation, and the influence has lingered. When I think of “radical,” that’s the image that appears.
I don’t know about Bart Simpson, but Jesus Christ is definitely in the radical mold: not in a Marxist or armed terrorist sense, but in the sense of getting to the heart of the matter. Radical comes from radix, the Latin word for “root.” So, following the word trail, a radical calling is one that attempts to pierce to the root of things, to their origin; a willingness to dig down deep to uncover what has been obscured by later growth. In its origins, “radical” is not about being innovative or idiosyncratic: it’s all about a return to the source of things; a return to the roots.
It’s one of Jesus’ typical moves: to go back to the beginning of God’s relationship with his People in order to reset. We see this in Jesus’ teaching about divorce, in the tenth chapter of Mark, where Jesus tells the Pharisees to set aside Moses’ teaching, which allowed a man to divorce his wife at will, and points them back to the original partnership of Adam and Eve “at the beginning of creation” (Mk. 10:6), as it says in that chapter. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk. 10:9), as Jesus puts it. He goes back to the beginning, to the Genesis story, to press the reset button.
In the same way, Jesus goes back to the root of things in our Gospel today. The Pharisees are going back and forth with Jesus about the commandments that ought to be binding: the teachings evolved over time by the community, with rules and regulations about food and cleanliness and other things; or the straightforward commandments of God. Jesus is critical of “the tradition of the elders” (Mk. 7:3), which is sometimes flat out contrary to the commandment of God. Again, Jesus is looking to reorient things by looking to the commandments of God rather than community norms. As a radical, he’s going back to the root of the issue; paring back the human tradition that’s grown up around the Law, to embrace a more original faithfulness.
Jesus has a way of getting to the heart of the matter, which any good radical does. In this case, we find that the heart, the human heart, is the source of the problem. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mk. 7:14-15). We tend to externalize our problems, assigning them to forces outside ourselves, to powers beyond our control. We attempt to regulate them through rules of our own devising. But we have to dig deeper than that; we have to look within for the source of our alienation from God.
The radical search into origins finds not only God’s original intention, but also discovers the original sin. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk. 7:20-23).
The sinful human heart is not addressed by rules about food or cleanliness or what have you (the tradition of the elders, as it says), but it’s the source of the problem. Jesus grasps the heart of the matter. He brings us back to the source for our healing; back to God who made us in the beginning and who gave us the commandments. Jesus summarizes later in Mark’s Gospel, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk. 12:29-31).
Jesus brings us back to the source, back to the root, for our healing, because that’s where the problem lies. God’s intention for us is health and wholeness, and the issues are within. Jesus becomes human because its our humanity that needs healing; our wayward, broken, human hearts that need mending. We can’t fix them, but Jesus can.