[Homily: Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent, ADDU Chapel]
We are still in the season of Lent. You will recall from the words which accompanied the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday the Church’s admonition, “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” In a Year of Faith, that is certainly most challenging.
First, turn away from sin. That is clear in today’s readings.
From the verse before the Gospel: “Cast away from yourselves all the crimes you have committed, says the Lord, and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Ez. 18:31).
Cast away your crimes. Some of these crimes are known. Some are numbered among your best-guarded secrets. Yet, they cry out to heaven for redress. The Lord asks you to cast them away, to throw them out of your lives. For this, you must look at them, recognize their power over you, and decide against them. “Casting them away” is not only an external action with external outcomes. It is rather a matter of deep interiority. “Make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit,” says the Lord.
The challenge resonates in the Prophet Isaiah and in the Gospel of Matthew: “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” (Is 1:16-17). Cast away evil. But when you have, “Learn to do good.” Many people have not. Many have attained much knowledge, but have not learned to do good. Goodness is a distant ideal or an unaccomplished intention, never coaxed into reality. Compassion and love need to find truth. Isaiah’s admonition is clear: In doing good, “Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphans plea, defend the widow.” In doing good, let justice lead you to the least and most needy in society. Jesus later would make this the criterion for eternal justification or damnation: In feeding the hungry, in giving drink to the thirsty, in welcoming the stranger, in clothing the naked, in caring for the sick, in visiting the imprisoned, did you minister to him? (cf. Mt. 25: 31-46).
For Isaiah today, there is an either/or each of us are confronted with: “Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing and obey, you will eat good things of the land; But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you…” (Is 1: 18-20). Either/or. Either stay in sin, or consume of the bounty of the Lord. Either cast away sin, or be consumed by the sword of the Lord.
So, once again, the Lenten challenge: Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.
“Believe in the Gospel.” In a Year of Faith, and in the faith of a lifetime, there is nothing more urgent. When people say, “There is no God. There is only matter, money, power and fame,” the Gospel says: there is a God. When people say, “Life is frustrating, unfair, unjust,” the Gospel says: God cares. When people say, “I don’t seem to find meaning anymore. I can’t seem to love anymore. I don’t seem to find the strength to live with myself after having been so wrong,” the Gospel says: God turns to us in love.
Believe in the Gospel. As God is all powerful, be humble; as God is humble, be edified; as God is compassionate, be kind. As the Gospel is given you through no merit of your own, do not terrorize people struggling to embrace it. Check: you yourself may have missed the point! Return to the Gospel, and believe. It is part of the Gospel that the one justified was not the Pharisee who went to the front of the temple and said, “Thank God I am not like the rest of men – [I am so good, so generous, so orthodox!]” but the tax-collector who said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, a sinner” (cf. Lk 18:9-14).
Our Lord’s strongest words of condemnation were not for those who erred in love, but for those who did not love, and somehow translated this hard self-adulating lovelessness into prescriptions for people. “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. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation, ‘Rabbi.’ (Mt 23:4-7).
“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven. You do not go in yourselves, and when others go in you stop them.” (Mt. 23:13).
Is there any wonder why the Scribes and Pharisees needed to kill him?
Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel. It is his love that makes that possible. Believe that the Cross is not a symbol of death, but a sign of God’s love overcoming our hardheadedness, our stupidity, and our sinfulness, and embracing us all. Believe in his love: we can turn away from selfishness, pride, and divisiveness, and help ourselves and one another live joyfully in the Lord.