26 February. Tuesday in the Second Week of Lent

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Isa 1:10ff. A prophetic call to personal conversion: “remove your wrongdoing from my sight”

Mt 23:1ff. Unlike hierarchical convention, in Jesus’ circle the greatest will act as servant.

First Reading: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Charity and personal integrity

The Bible calls for integrity and honesty of life. Our outer and inner persona should harmonise together: thoughts and actions, interior esteem and exterior forms of justice. A well-integrated life reaches outward, beyond one’s own concerns and rights, beyond our circle of friends and acquaintances, to give a helping hand to whoever is needy and within our reach. “Hear the orphan’s plea and defend the widow.” Orphan and widow stand for all the needy people of our world. In a stern passage omitted in today’s liturgy Isaiah says that to pretend to pray while neglecting the poor draws from God the response: “I close my eyes to you … I will not listen.” To be indifferent towards the poor is like being a murderer, with “hands full of blood!” Hence the next phrase, “Wash yourselves clean!” – mainly by caring for the less fortunate.

No man is an island. The entire human family is inter-dependent, and must close ranks around its own flesh and blood. Not to do so makes us guilty of neglect. We shudder, for how often we have passed by beggars without giving alms, driven comfortably through slums, wasted food in the same city where some are going to bed hungry. But despite our many sins omission God offers the possibility of total conversion. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”

The Gospel continues this theme with a stern warning from Jesus against a Pharisaic religiosity of external rules and regulations while ignoring the plight of the poor. At times even Catholic clergy might fall victim to the tendency to “lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Certainly we need also to examine our conscience about any excessive fussiness about vestments (phylacteries?), ecclesiastical titles (“Rabbi!”) and claiming places of public honour. The ideal proposed by Jesus, “The greatest among you will be your servant” is as much a challenge in our days as ever it was. We pray that whoever, in God’s Providence, is elected as successor to pope Benedict XVI will be inspired to be a great listener and leader, a true servant of the servants of God.

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