Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Whoever Exalts Himself Will Be Humbled; But Whoever Humbles Himself Will Be Exalted.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent
Reading I
Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Hear the word of the LORD,
princes of Sodom!
Listen to the instruction of our God,
people of Gomorrah!
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.

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 shall eat the good things of the land;
But if you refuse and resist,
the sword shall consume you:
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!
Today's First Reading is from the very beginning of Isaiah and today’s passage is primarily an attack on the people’s hypocrisy - the same theme as in the Gospel. It is a call for humility in the presence of God and in the presence of our brothers and sisters.

There are strong words from Isaiah on his people and their rulers. He calls the leaders of God’s people “princes of Sodom” and speaks of the people as “people of Gomorrah”. Sodom and Gomorrah were the epitome of all that was most evil and repellent to God. They are classic examples of sinful cities completely destroyed (cf. Gen 13:13; 18:20-21…). And just as Jesus addressed Peter as Satan for blocking God’s plans, so Isaiah addresses his countrymen as deserving no better than the corrupt citizens of those wicked cities.

In verses which are omitted, God, speaking through his prophet, denounces the endless round of burnt offerings and sacrificial animals. “Bring me no more futile cereal offerings, the smoke from them fills me with disgust.”  “You may multiply your prayers, I shall not be listening.” Why? Because “your hands are covered in blood.” There is no relationship between the endless prayers piously offered and behaviour which is totally unacceptable to God.

But God’s desire is not to condemn but to call his people to genuine repentance. “Wash yourselves clean!” And how are they to repent? By offering still more sacrifices? By going to Confession? By saying a perfunctory Act of Contrition? No, “make justice your aim”. They are to redress the wrongs done to others, to “hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow”. In Jewish society of the time, these were the weakest and most neglected of people. There could be no real repentance unless care was taken of the weakest and most needy in society. For us, in Lent, the message is exactly the same.

And there is hope. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” For those who truly repent - and this is shown by a radical change in their behaviour and in the way they act towards the weak and neglected - total rehabilitation is possible.

That is what we hope will be our experience, too, this Lent.

The choice is ours:
either to submit ourselves to the compassionate way of God and find life;
or to go our own rebellious, self-centred way and find death.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Psalm 50
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you,
for your burnt offerings are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats out of your fold.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Why do you recite my statutes,
and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline
and cast my words behind you?”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way
I will show the salvation of God.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
Matthew 23:1-12
Jesus spoke to the crowds
and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things
whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example,
For they preach but they do not practice.
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.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher,
and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus' words in today's Gospel  look like an attack on the Pharisees but we should really see that they are directed towards members of the Christian community, especially its leaders. Jesus levels two criticisms against the Pharisees:
- they don’t practice what they preach, and
- they do what they do to attract the admiration of others.

In fact, the words of Jesus are warning to all people in authority. Jesus was attacking the Pharisees but his words can be applied to many positions in our own society. Executives, managers, doctors, lawyers, bishops, priests, civil servants, parents can all be included here. In so far as they have genuine authority, they should be listened to - the doctor about things medical, the lawyer about things legal, the priest about things spiritual, the parent about family matters.

The Pharisees tried to impress by wearing wider phylacteries and longer tassels. The phylacteries were small boxes containing verses of scripture which were worn on the left forearm and the forehead. The tassels, worn on the corners of one’s garment, were prescribed by Mosaic law as a reminder to keep the commandments. By making each of these items larger one drew attention to one’s superior piety and observance. It is not difficult to see parallels in our time.

Unfortunately, it would be wrong to follow the behavior of such people especially when they become arrogant and domineering, when they use their authority to draw attention to themselves, to assert their supposedly superior status. When they impose burdens on those ‘below’ them which they themselves do nothing to alleviate. One is reminded of Miss Brodie in the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie telling her students who questioned something she had done: “Girls, don’t do as I do; do as I say.”

Authority is not for power but for empowering and enabling. Real authority is a form of service, not a way of control or domination or a claim to special privileges. So Jesus has no time for people who insist on being addressed by their formal titles. Matthew’s attack on the Pharisees again points to similar weaknesses on the part of church leaders in his time. It is something that again we are all too familiar with in our own time.

“Hi, Jim!” “Mr Smith to you, if you don’t mind.”
“Hi, Father Jack!” “Monsignor Jones to you, please!”

As Jesus says, ultimately we are all brothers and sisters. And elsewhere he tells us that the greatest among us is the one who best serves the needs of those around him rather than the one who has the most impressive titles, or the biggest desk, or eats in the executive dining room, or has his/her picture on the cover of Time or Glamour.

Unfortunately, we contribute a lot to this nonsense because some of us dream of being there ourselves some day.

“Anyone who lifts himself up will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be lifted up.” The perfect model is Jesus himself, who “though in the form of God emptied himself… walked the path of obedience all the way to death… For this reason God raised him to the highest place” (Philippians 2:7-9).

Living Space
The Irish Jesuits

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