Saturday, March 13, 2010

It Is Mercy I Desire, And Not Sacrifice.

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent
Reading I
Hosea 6:1-6
“Come, let us return to the LORD,
it is he who has rent, but he will heal us;
he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.
He will revive us after two days;
on the third day he will raise us up,
to live in his presence.
Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD;
as certain as the dawn is his coming,
and his judgment shines forth like the light of day!
He will come to us like the rain,
like spring rain that waters the earth.”
What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your piety is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that early passes away.
For this reason I smote them through the prophets,
I slew them by the words of my mouth;
For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice,
and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
The readings are about our attitudes in relating to God in prayer.

“This passage used to be read every Good Friday… the northern kingdom (Ephraim) and the southern kingdom (Judah) are criticised for their shallow religion and trust in animal sacrifices. God wants a life of sincere service.” (Vatican II Missal)

The prophet here composes a penitential prayer and puts it into the mouths of God’s people, who are terrified by threats of punishment and of being abandoned by him. They exhort each other to return to Yahweh but the return is only superficial; there is no real repentance.

“Let us return to Yahweh” is the call but it lacks sincerity. The people complain that God has treated them roughly but they are confident that he will heal them again. “He has struck us… after two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up.” Some have seen in these words a reference to the resurrection of Christ, by which will bring God’s healing back to his people.

“He will come to us like a shower, like the rain of springtime to the earth.” Israel believed that, as surely as the seasonal rains fell and revived the earth, God’s favour would return and restore her, that his anger would come to an end.

The reason for God’s toughness is the superficiality of their commitment to him: their love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that quickly disappears. God sees through the emptiness of their pious expressions. “What am I to do with you, Ephraim [the northern kingdom]? What am I to do with you Judah [the southern kingdom]? For your love is like morning mist, like the dew that quickly disappears.”

They have used high-sounding words of repentance but their actions have not been in harmony with utterances. “This is why I have hacked them to pieces by means of the prophets, why I have killed them with the words from my mouth.” Not literally killed them, of course, but condemned their sinful behaviour.

God now spells it out clearly: “Faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.” (A sentence quoted twice in Matthew’s gospel.) What God has wanted from them is genuine loving actions, not empty rituals, however piously performed. Knowledge of God, not knowledge about God but a knowledge implying a deep interpersonal relationship instead of ostentatious holocausts.

This is what we see criticised in today’s Gospel too. And, for us, it is not the Masses we attend, or the prayers we say that count most, but the genuine love of God shown by the way we live our lives and the way we relate to the people around us.

Our prayer must flow out of such a lifestyle and, at the same time, bring about such a way of living.
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Responsorial Psalm
Psalm 51
It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
Be bountiful, O LORD, to Zion in your kindness
by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem;
Then shall you be pleased with due sacrifices,
burnt offerings and holocausts.
It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.
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Luke 18:9-14
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity
greedy, dishonest, adulterous or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week,
and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In today’s Gospel we see two ways of praying. One is arrogant, proud and contemptuous of others. As the Pharisee “prays”, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity, greedy, dishonest, adulterous or even like this tax collector" God is somehow meant to feel grateful that there are at least a few people as observant of the rules as he is in comparison with the sinful and despicable outsider symbolised by the tax collector behind him.
Yet his “prayer” is not accepted. It is not really a prayer at all but a hymn to himself. As Catholics, or as regular churchgoers, we can sometimes feel superior to those who have dropped out, to those who have no religion, those who lead what we regard as “immoral” lives.

The tax collector is certainly a sinner; that is not denied. But he knows and acknowledges his sinfulness. He is deeply repentant and he puts himself totally at the mercy of God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” God accepts the prayer of the second one because he acknowledges God as his Lord and Saviour. Nor does he compare himself with anyone else. He does not judge anyone else; only himself.

Our prayer must always be an expression of our total dependence on God. There is nothing that we can give him which he has not given us first. All we can do is to make an effort to return a fraction of the love that he showers constantly on us. We are and always will be in his debt.


Sarah in the tent said...

'.. and spoke this prayer to himself,'

That says it all, really - the pharisee is praying to himself as God!

It's interesting how, as an egomaniac, he has no feeling of solidarity with the rest of the human race. And yet all his sense of self worth comes from being able to compare himself with other human beings. It is far better to know oneself as a sinner in the eyes of a merciful God than to buy into the illusion of being a good man in the opinion of the world.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, your opening comment moved me to look up this passage in several translations of this gospel. Various versions read: "to himself', some "with himself", one "about himself." Yet, reading further, both the Pharisee and the Publican begin with the same words, "O God ...", addressing the God of Israel. The one boasts about himself; the other acknowledges his sinfulness and prays for God's mercy.

So, your second paragraph is spot on the mark, Sarah. The Pharisee considers himself favorably with other human beings, replacing God on the judge's bench. And you have stated the lesson of the parable clearly and simply: "It is far better to know oneself as a sinner in the eyes of a merciful God..."

Think of the two Carmelite nuns whose share the same name, one in Spanish and one in French: Teresa de Jesus of Avila and Therese de Lisieux of France. The more each of them grew in grace, the more horrified they became at their imperfections. It reminds me of my mother cleaning the windows in our flat, when I was a school boy. Each time she finished washing, rinsing and drying a window pane, she looked it over, and saw smaller spots that she hadn't noticed before. When she gave up after three or four attempts, she walked away unsatisfied with the result of her efforts. She was striving for perfection, and whether we're speaking of the window pane or the human soul, the goal is improvement, not perfection, for the latter pertains only to God.