Friday, February 26, 2010

Go First And Be Reconciled, Then Come And Offer Your Gift At The Altar.

Friday of the First Week of Lent

Reading I
Ezekiel 18:21-28
Thus says the Lord GOD:
If the wicked man turns away
from all the sins he committed,
if he keeps all my statutes
and does what is right and just,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
None of the crimes he committed
shall be remembered against him;
he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.
Do I indeed derive any pleasure
from the death of the wicked?
says the Lord GOD.
Do I not rather rejoice
when he turns from his evil way
that he may live?

And if the virtuous man turns
from the path of virtue to do evil,
the same kind of abominable things
that the wicked man does,
can he do this and still live?
None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered,
because he has broken faith and committed sin;
because of this, he shall die.
You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair,
or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue
to commit iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity
he committed that he must die.
But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness
he has committed, does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away
from all the sins that he committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
The prophet Ezekiel today makes a double point.

On the one hand if the man who has done evil genuinely repents of what he has done he will be totally forgiven. “All the sins he committed will be forgotten from then on; he shall live because of the integrity he has practised.” Because it is God’s desire that we should live rather than die. On the other hand, if the formerly good man turns to a life of sin, he will die in his sin. Some may object that that is not fair. Why should he be punished when he did so much good in the past?

There was a tendency among the people of the Old Testament to believe that people were not only guilty of their past sins but even of the sins of their parents. We remember, in John’s gospel, how Jesus was asked whether the man born blind was that way because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. Chronic disabilities - blindness, paralysis, deafness and the like were often seen as punishment for sin. When the paralysed man let down through the roof came to the feet of Jesus, the first thing Jesus said to him was: “Your sins are forgiven.” And his subsequent healing was taken as proof that indeed his sins were really forgiven, because the cause had also been removed.

But here Ezekiel is affirming that sin is something that belongs to the individual. And that it is a person’s present dispositions, and only these, that determine God’s judgement.

One thing that comes out clearly in the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, is that God has a very short memory. Far from being a defect, it is a quality that very much favors us.

The person God sees is the person that I am now. What matters are my relationships with him now. The past, good or bad, is forgotten. There is not a divine account book with credits and debits that have to be balanced out at the end of the day.

Judas a chosen apostle was lost because of the final choice he made in life. The murderous brigand on the cross with Jesus repents and goes straight to heaven.

Some may complain that “what the Lord does is unjust”. But the reading makes the situation clear: “When the upright abandons uprightness and does wrong and dies, he dies because of the wrong which he himself has done. Similarly, when the wicked abandons wickedness to become law-abiding and upright, he saves his own life.” It is not God who condemns us. It is we who make the choice to be with God or to alienate ourselves from him. And God recognises our choice.

So we too need not be anxious about our past. All that matters is how I relate to God today and each day. And the choice to be with God or away from him is all ours. If today I reject God, directly or through the way I relate with those around me, then, however virtuous I have been in the past, I have put him out of my life. If, on the other hand, today I choose God, then I have nothing to fear whatever I may have been guilty of in the past.

For our own reflection, we can be consoled that, no matter what we did in the past, it will have no effect on our relationship with God provided we reach out to him here and now. On the other hand, there is no room for complacency. Our past good record can be completely undone by our turning away at any time.
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Psalm 130
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the LORD
more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
Let Israel wait for the LORD.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
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Matthew 5:20-26
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, unless your righteousness
surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly
while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent
will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released
until you have paid the last penny.”
Today’s readings are about repentance for the wrongs we have done and the guarantee of God’s mercy.

This gospel passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount and is the first of six so-called “antitheses” where Jesus contrasts the demands of the Law with those of the Gospel. Virtue for the scribes and Pharisees was largely measured by external observance of the law.

For Jesus that is not enough. For him real virtue is in the heart. There was a commandment not to kill but Jesus says that even hatred and anger, violence in the heart (often expressed by abusive language) must be avoided. Furthermore, we cannot have one set of relationships with God and another set with people.

So, it is no use going to pray and make our offering to God if we have done hurt to a brother or sister. I must leave my gift at the altar, and first go and be reconciled with my brother or sister. Only then may I come to offer my gift.
I cannot say I love God if I hate a brother or sister. “If someone says he loves God, but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20) and “As often as you did not do it to the least of these you did not do it to me.” Repentance has to be expressed both to God and the person I have hurt. I cannot be reconciled to one and not to the other.

We have something like this in every celebration of the Eucharist although, in practice, it can be very superficially done. At the beginning of the Communion, we together recite the Lord’s Prayer in which we all say: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” How often are we conscious of saying those words and how often do we really mean them?

Just after that, we are invited to share a sign of peace with those around us. Again, this can be done in a very perfunctory way. But the meaning of this gesture is that we want to be totally in a spirit of union and reconciliation with each other before we approach the Lord’s Table to break together the Bread which is the sign of our unity as members of his Body.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

What you write about the first reading makes me understand the term 'omnipresent' differently; as relating to time, not just space (always in the present tense - God IS). The reading brought to mind the phrase in the Book of Common Prayer: in the midst of life we are in death, which also reminds us that we have to choose life at every moment.