The great artist Leonardo da Vinci spent many years at the end of the 15th century painting his masterpiece “The Last Supper.” The most difficult part was finding models for each of the thirteen faces. One Sunday morning at Mass, da Vinci saw a young man in the church choir named Pietro Bandinelli who looked exactly like his vision of how Christ should appear, for his features suggested love, tenderness, innocence, and compassion. The young man agreed to sit for da Vinci and to let his face be used as a model for Christ. Almost ten years went by, but da Vinci hadn’t finished the painting because he couldn’t find the right model for Judas. He wanted someone whose face was marked by despair, wickedness, greed, and sin. Finally he saw a man in prison whose face was a perfect model for Judas, and arrangements were made for him to be da Vinci’s model. However, as the days passed and the prisoner saw the painting progressing, he became increasingly horrified and upset—so finally da Vinci asked him, “What is troubling you so much?” The prisoner sobbed uncontrollably, then finally blurted out,
Don’t you remember me?
When da Vinci said no, the convict explained, “I am Pietro Bandinelli—years ago I was your model for Jesus.” This once-innocent young man had given himself over completely to a life of sin and crime, despising the things he once loved and turning his back on Christ—and the results could actually be seen in his face (Cavanagh, More Sower’s Seeds, #21).
As Jesus says, we are not rendered unclean or displeasing to God by outward circumstances and events over which we have no control. The worst disfigurements come from within. We can’t always control our physical health or appearance, but we are responsible for the state of our souls—and Jesus urges us to take this responsibility very seriously.
Sacred Scripture often speaks of the need to make sure our outer actions and our inner beliefs correspond to one another in a spiritually healthy and life-giving way. When Moses gave the Law to the Jewish people, he emphasized that it wasn’t meant to be just a set of rules, but a way of life; by observing the Law, the people were supposed to give evidence of their inner wisdom and intelligence. However, by the time of Jesus many people, including some of the religious leaders, had lost sight of this truth. Over the centuries rules and customs had developed and expanded; there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this—but the problem was that, in many cases, these human traditions had replaced true worship of God. Sin had sometimes come to be seen as merely the violation of a rule, or as a failure to practice the right outward signs. Jesus emphatically rejected this understanding. Evil cannot be blamed on the outside world; it comes from within our own hearts, and from our personal failure to resist temptation. Acts of theft, fornication, murder, adultery, greed, and the other sins mentioned by Jesus render us impure in God’s eyes, and no amount of religious observance or ritual will change this unless we truly repent in our hearts. That’s why St. James says that if we merely listen to God’s word, we are deceiving ourselves; true faith is expressed in loving deeds.
We live in an age which likes to make excuses; many people say, “It’s not my fault; society is to blame,” or “I had a deprived childhood, so I shouldn’t be held accountable,” or “Life is too oppressive, so I’m not really responsible for what I do.” These excuses might work with certain politicians and journalists and social engineers, but they won’t work with God. Each one of us will answer to Him, and Jesus tells us what we need to do and what we need to be aware of so as to be ready for judgment. Our Heavenly Father won’t judge us on what happens to us in life, but on how we respond; we won’t be held accountable for outward appearances, but for what’s in our hearts. That’s where we will either be transformed by God’s grace, or destroyed by wickedness and sin.
If we want to take Jesus’ words seriously, there are three things we need to do. First, we must be aware of anything in our hearts that may be poisoning our lives, such as bitterness, hatred, greed, lust, or anything that may be warping our values and hindering our spiritual growth, and then humbly and honestly ask for the Lord’s help in overcoming it. Secondly, we must ask God to fill us with His grace and to grant us His peace, thereby crowding out our bad habits with virtues and making our worship of God fruitful and sincere. Thirdly, we must put our faith into practice, so that our loving words are backed up with deeds, and so that good habits are formed that will help carry us through times of temptation, confusion, and doubt.
There are people who are glamorous and attractive and much admired by the world who are utterly repulsive to God, and who risk eternal damnation unless they repent. There are also people who, in the world’s eyes, are unattractive, useless, and perhaps even repulsive, but who are nevertheless greatly cherished by God, and who will be glorified and exalted in His Kingdom. Sometimes our moral decisions will affect our appearance, as was the case with Pietro Bandinelli; more often, however, outward signs and images will mean little or nothing. The important thing is what God will find in our hearts, and nothing can be allowed to distract us from the need to prepare for this judgment. Leonardo da Vinci and other great artists have created some religious masterpieces. We are called to do the same thing in our souls: not with paints and brushes, but with faith and love—and our efforts in this regard should be the most important thing we do each day.