There’s a famous story about the English author G.K. Chesterton that may or may not be true, but it does illustrate a type of wisdom that was particular to the Catholic writer. An article in the London Times posed a question, “What is wrong with the world?” and it asked that current authors offer their opinions in the form of an essay. Chesterton responded with a one-line essay: “Dear sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
If that question was to be posed to us all today, what would we respond? What is wrong with the world? I am sure that we all have our candidates for where the blame might lay – maybe even multiple candidates. There’s a lot wrong with the world!
If that’s the case, what are we to do? How can we overcome the immense chaos that seems to press in upon us all the time? Is it even worth it?
In Jesus’ time, there were also people who had ideas about what was wrong with the world, and we meet some of them today. The Pharisees point out that the disciples are not being observant Jews by eating with dirty hands, in violation of their traditions. For them, the wonton disregard for rules was seen as a contribution to the troubles that Israel was facing, and they took every opportunity to point these things out.
Except today, they do it to Jesus.
Jesus – the Word-made-flesh – turns on them and points out their error and hypocrisy. The pharisees found a way to identify what was wrong with the world and presented themselves as the only true way to overcome that. Only through the meticulous observance of every little tradition could they bring about the restoration of God’s order in the world.
But the world is not that simple as to be “fixed” by such a simplistic solution. Rather, the world is complex, and what is wrong with the world is also complex. To simplify it to one problem, event, or “-ism” is grossly ignorant of that same complexity. It might be attractive to say this or that is exactly what’s wrong with the world; it’s an easy solution. However, it is also a lazy one. There is no shortage of people who would claim to know the “one thing” that is wrong with the world and therefore what should be done about it. They claim to hold the full view of the truth of things – like the Pharisees – and like in Jesus’ day, they are dangerous people today.
However, Jesus is able to cut through that mess and reorient us toward a solution. “Nothing that enters one from the outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. For within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All of these evils come from within and they defile.”
For Christ, the enemy is not “those people” or “that practice” or sin; rather, the enemy is within – it’s me, it’s you. What is wrong with the world? I am.
I am racist. I am homophobic. I am misogynistic. I am judgmental. I am stubborn. I am argumentative. I am privileged. I am always right. I am greedy. I am whiny. I am hateful. I am the fool. I am what is wrong with the world.
Now, before we get too down on ourselves because of the fault we bear for the world. There is actually good news here. If these evils dwell within me, then there is something that I can do about it. It’s not enough to complain, because that doesn’t fix anything. You are much more likely to be clear minded about what is what and where blame lays once you address the log in your own eye, rather than the speck in your brother’s. It’s probable that your own imperfections are evident and plentiful, and could be well addressed, as step one in your own quest to improve the world.
In fact, this is exactly what Jesus did. St. Paul tells us that for our sake God made him to be sin who did not know sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. By pointing to these “defilers” within us, Christ is actually inviting us to join Him in the mission of Salvation. We cannot save the world – Jesus does that – however, we can defeat those problems that are manifest within us. Rather than taking on the grand systemic issues that are perennial, we can begin to consider the smaller more precisely defined problems on the scale of our lives. This is personal responsibility. This is maturity.
What it takes is something that the Pharisees do not show: humility. In humility we take responsibility for ourselves and our sins, and we start on a road to conquering what is wrong with the world. Start with your bedroom and clean it! Take care of your family. Don’t lie. Straighten up your life in a committed way. When you have mastered those small steps, move on to something bigger. I can do that too – and we can together begin to contribute to what is right with the world.