Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.”
The word from Isaiah today carries an elemental power. “Cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim.” It is impossible at moments of solitude and prayer not to become frightened by the ways, consciously and unconsciously, that I cover my selfishness and sin with affectation and niceness. The summons of Lent is to an honesty that begins to recognize the significant gap between the will, which is the life, of God in us and the ingrained and compulsive dispositions of heart that serve our defensiveness and arrogance.
In so many ways we seem to live in an environment of increasing dissension, hostility, conflict and polarization. Anger and resentment against each other seems to be at a fever pitch these days, in the Church, in civil society, and geopolitically. In the midst of this inner and outer turmoil comes the call of today’s readings: “Cease doing evil; learn to do good.” For a different way of being with and for each other to emerge, we must first recognize the reality of sin in and among us.
To hear that it is necessary that we “learn to do good” is a difficult message. Don’t we as adults, and rather aged ones for some of us, know how to do good already? Haven’t we long ago learned to distinguish “the light from the darkness”? The truthful answer to both questions is “No!” As Jesus says: “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) As Pope Francis reminds us in his own self-identification: “I am a sinner.” Even when we attempt to do our best with all sincerity, our eyes are always somewhat clouded and our minds and hearts are somewhat darkened by the effects of sin in us. And, when we forget who we are and become arrogant in our interpretations, we are all the more apt to be mistaken.
So, we must always be working without ceasing at ceasing to do evil and learning to do good. Since our every attempt to do good will be complicated by our sinfulness, every thought, word, and action, every relationship with others in the world is an opportunity to learn better how to do good. This is precisely why Jesus tells us that the mode of presence of his disciples in the world is that of a servant, not a master. As he says in today’s gospel, if we lift another’s burden we are doing good. If we further burden another, whatever we may think we are doing, we are doing evil.
As I’ve often mentioned, many years ago we were privileged to study with Fr. Adrian van Kaam. Over time, I came to realize that the consistent experience of his teaching was one of release, a diminishing of introspection and anxiety and a felt experience of the beneficence of the Mystery of God at work in life and world. While leading us deeper into the truth of our own lives, Fr. van Kaam’s own transcendent presence to God’s Mystery offered us a perspective and milieu within which our own limits, failings, and sinfulness were suffused with the love and mercy of God. This was not primarily a cognitive experience but rather an affective one. I can recall actually leaving class feeling lighter and more profoundly peaceful. His presence and teaching had truly lightened our burden.
It is not the reality of our sinfulness that is the problem. It is our denial of it. As soon as we project out onto others our own fears, limits, and sin, we become ourselves the “evildoers.” I find that one of the most frightening aspects of being a “professional religious person” is the possibility that my form of life will exacerbate rather than diminish my illusory self-righteousness, that I shall feel the compulsion to affect a virtuousness and righteousness that I lack.
On his way back from his pastoral visit to Cuba and the United States, Pope Francis was asked about the fact that he had become a “star” in the United States. He responded:
Do you know what the title was of the Pope that ought to be used? Servant of the servants of God. It’s a little different from the stars. Stars are beautiful to look at. I like to look at them in the summer when the sky is clear. But the Pope must be, must be the servant of the servants of God. Yes, in the media this is happening but there’s another truth. How many stars have we seen that go out and fall. It is a fleeting thing. On the other hand, being servant of the servants of God is something that doesn’t pass.
Upon first reading, it is somewhat discouraging to hear the words: “Cease doing evil; learn to do good.” Yet, the truth that we must always be desisting from doing evil and learning to do good need not be a source of discouragement, for such discouragement is but our own wounded pride. In the right sense, to be always suspect of our own goodness and attempts to do good for others is the great mitigator of our own tendencies to power and violence. Most of what we say and do will have mixed results. Sometimes our efforts will lift the burdens from the shoulders of others, and sometimes we shall increase them. “No one is good except God alone,” but by paying attention and humbly learning from our mistakes, we can slowly, and until life’s end, continue to “learn to do good.”
Pastoral conversion was the call that Francis took up after his election in Evangelii Gaudium, and which has guided the decisions he has taken these past four years of reform. His papacy has been a “perennial activity of pastoral conversion and witness to mercy,” as he puts it in Mater et Misericordia, in which “what is central is not the law or legal justice, but the love of God, which is capable of looking into the heart of each person and seeing the deepest desire hidden there.”
It has meant a new Catholic populism, re-connecting the Church with the people of God through attention to the lives and experiences of ordinary people, using ordinary language and speaking directly to their concerns, rather than taking refuge in abstractions and idealized schemes.
It is a Church, in short, that seeks to be both “close” and “concrete” – traits the pope has himself embodied to a remarkable degree, in his communication and actions, transforming the papacy itself.
It is a Church of dialogue, in the sense that Vatican II meant it: rather than treating the world outside the Church as needing to be taught truths which the Church possesses, it is more about discovering what God has done and is doing in the life of people and their societies, while speaking out forcefully against what resists that presence.
It is a Church that seeks to follow “the logic of God” rather than “the logic of the doctors of the law,” as Francis put it to the cardinals in February 2015 – meaning less concerned with preserving the community from threats and more concerned with a direct encounter with and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the service of humanity that flows from that experience.
Austen Ivereigh, Four Years On, Francis’ s Pastoral Revolution Is The Heart of It All, Crux, March 13, 2017