Saturday, February 20, 2010

"I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

Reading I
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Thus says the LORD:
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech;
If you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday;
Then the LORD will guide you always
and give you plenty even on the parched land.
He will renew your strength,
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring whose water never fails.
The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt for your sake,
and the foundations from ages past you shall raise up;
“Repairer of the breach,” they shall call you,
“Restorer of ruined homesteads.”
If you hold back your foot on the sabbath
from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the sabbath a delight,
and the LORD’s holy day honorable;
If you honor it by not following your ways,
seeking your own interests, or speaking with maliceB
Then you shall delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will nourish you with the heritage of Jacob, your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
The Scripture lessons as we enter the Lenten season could hardly be clearer. It is not just a time for focusing on ourselves by giving up things and perhaps even feeling smug about it. It is a time to look beyond ourselves and to find God there.

Earlier in the passage we read today, Isaiah comments on complaints being made by people that though they are fasting God is not taking any notice. The reason is, says Isaiah, is because while they are virtuously fasting they continue to exploit their workers and get involved in fights and quarrels.

If we call on the Lord for help, he will hear us but there are conditions. We must be rid of any form of oppression, false accusations or malicious speech. We need to share our bread with the hungry and console the afflicted.

Then light will shine in our lives and “the gloom shall become for you like midday”. We will become like “a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails”.

There is a further call to spend the Lord’s day in a more reverent manner. It is a time to refrain as far as possible from our daily concerns and make it more a day for quiet reflection and a time to remember God’s gifts to us. “Then you shall delight in the Lord.”

Lent, then, is really a time for us to reflect on the meaning and direction of our lives and to consider what changes are necessary not just at this time but for the year ahead.

+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 86
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
Incline your ear, O LORD; answer me,
for I am afflicted and poor.
Keep my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
Have mercy on me, O Lord,
for to you I call all the day.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.
Hearken, O LORD, to my prayer
and attend to the sound of my pleading.
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
+++ +++ +++ +++

Luke 5:27-32

Jesus saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And leaving everything behind,
he got up and followed him.
Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house,
and a large crowd of tax collectors
and others were at table with them.
The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying,
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.”
Jesus certainly made strange choices in his prospective followers. Today when we look for “vocations” we tend to search among committed and well-balanced Christians. Today we see Jesus picking someone who was regarded as an immoral money-grabber, a religious outcast.

Tax collectors were despised on two counts: first, they were seen as venal collaborators with the hated colonial ruler, the Romans, for whom they were working; second, they were corrupt and extorted far more money than was their due.

But Jesus knows his man. At the sound of the invitation, Levi drops everything, his whole business and the security it brings him. It is very similar to the fishermen leaving their boats and their nets. He then goes off after Jesus. Where? For what? He has no idea. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John before him, in a great act of trust and faith, he throws in his lot with Jesus whatever it is going to mean, wherever it is going to bring him. In Luke’s gospel particularly, the following of Jesus involves total commitment.

Then, as his last fling so to speak, he throws a party in his house for all his friends, who of course were social rejects like himself. The religious-minded scribes and Pharisees were shocked at Jesus’ behaviour. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they complained to the disciples.

Jesus answers for them. Only the sick need a doctor, not the healthy; Jesus has not come to call the virtuous, but sinners, to repentance. Jesus’ words can be read in two ways. On the one hand, there is no need to preach to the converted. Which is what we do a lot of in our Christian churches. What is needed is to reach out to those who are lost, whose lives are going in the wrong direction, who are leading a self-destructive existence.

And surely that is what the Church needs to be about today. There is a lot of the Pharisee among us still. We are still shocked if we see a priest or a “good” Catholic in “bad” company and often jump to hasty and unjustified conclusions. “A priest/sister should not be seen in such company.” As a result the Church is in many cases very much confined to the church-going fringes of society.

Jesus’ words can also be taken in a sarcastic sense. His critics regarded themselves as among the well and virtuous. In fact, they totally lacked the love and compassion of God reflected in Jesus. Their “virtue” did not need Jesus because they were closed to him anyway. We remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. It was the one who acknowledged himself as a sinner and wanted God’s mercy who won God’s favour.

We too need to be careful of sitting in judgment on others, taking the high moral ground and claiming to be shocked at certain people’s behaviour. All of us, without exception, are in need of healing.

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