Mar 11, 2022: Friday of the First Week of Lent

1st Reading – 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 he turns from the wickedness he has committed,
he does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.

The prophet Ezekiel lived during the time when the Babylonians destroyed Judah, the southern kingdom. A member of a priestly family, Ezekiel was taken to Babylon in the first deportation (597 BC), along with his wife, King Jehoiachin, and all his court. He never returned to Jerusalem except in visions.

Today’s first reading includes one of the most beautiful summaries of divine mercy.

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. 

Human understanding of divine justice and punishment developed slowly over a long period until Jesus’ time. Even so, from the very beginning of divine revelation, there was never any doubt that God is always ready to forgive.

This being said, note the need for genuine contrition: Forgiveness occurs only if the wicked man turns away from his sins.

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?

This is probably not a reference to physical death, but spiritual death by separation from God, who is the source of life.

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. 

Ezekiel makes it clear that while we are in this world we are in a state of probation; the time of our trial lasts as long as the time of life. Whatever state our souls are in at the end of life is how it will remain for eternity.

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?

The Israelites cry out about unfairness, and God responds with a counter-accusation: It is not God’s ways, but Israel’s ways, that are unfair.

When a virtuous man turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.

Two situations are described. Both of them portray a change in behavior. In the first situation, a righteous person sins; in the second, a sinner repents. (The Hebrew verbiage suggests these are two separate individuals.)

But if a wicked man, 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 which he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.

God metes out punishment in the first situation and grants a reward in the second. Is this injustice on God’s part? Is God expected to forego deserved punishment in the first case because of the good deeds performed earlier by the one who is now a sinner? Is God only to remember the past sinfulness of the person in the second case and not reward a significant change in that person’s lifestyle?

These two situations show us that the justice of God is not dispensed according to the merits that have accumulated throughout one’s past history. Rather, it corresponds to the character of one’s present manner of behavior, to the kind of person one has become. Is this injustice on God’s part? Exactly how did the house of Israel want God to act?

What is described here is not the unlikely case of a person who has lived righteously throughout all of life but dies immediately after having committed one isolated serious sin; rather, the text says this person actually turns away from virtue. Having chosen another path, this person now suffers the consequences of that choice.

Psalm 130:1-8

R. If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?

The main theme of Psalm 130 is hope in divine forgiveness.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication.

The psalmist calls on God to listen.

What is translated as “out of the depths” is literally “out of the abyss.” This could refer to death (as in Psalm 18:4-5 or Psalm 69:2) or to the depths of human conscience.

If you, O LORD, mark iniquities, LORD, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered.

The psalmist admits that every human being is a sinner, and that God, by forgiving sin, shows himself to be so much greater than man.

I trust in the LORD; my soul trusts in his word. My soul waits for the LORD more than sentinels wait for the dawn. 

God has promised forgiveness (Exodus 34:6-7), and the psalmist is relying on that promise; he is confident that forgiveness will come — as sure as a watchman is that dawn will come (Isaiah 21:11-12).

Let Israel wait for the LORD. For with the LORD is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption; and he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.

The call to the people to hope in the LORD is in line with the psalmist’s conviction. The reasons given here for that hope (“kindness” and “redemption”) are the divine attributes manifested in the Covenant (Deuteronomy 7:8, 9:4-5, etc.).

That is what God is like; therefore, he will pardon all his people’s sins.

Gospel – 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 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 gospel reading is from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses with authority from God to promulgate a new law.

Today we hear Jesus explain the relationship between his teaching and the law. In doing so, Jesus stresses the perennial value of the Old Testament. It is the word of God; because it has divine authority, it deserves total respect.

Jesus said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The notion of righteousness (or justice) in Holy Scripture is an essentially religious one. A righteous person is one who sincerely strives to do the will of God. Righteousness, in the language of the Bible, is the same as what is today called “holiness.”

The scribes and the Pharisees were experts on Jewish law and adhered to the law meticulously. Jesus teaches his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of even the most devout Jews, but not in the way they would expect. Jesus’ teaching fulfills the law by demanding more in the way of love, not external conformity to the law. Legalistic adherence to the law is not sufficient.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.”

Jesus now draws a number of comparisons between the law and his own teachings, giving concrete examples of the way that he brings the Mosaic Law to its fulfillment by explaining the deeper meaning of its commandments.

In each case, Jesus reminds his audience of what they have already been taught, then radically re-interprets the statement of the law.

To begin, Jesus quotes the commandment against murder from Exodus 20:15 and Deuteronomy 5:18. The added statement concerning judgment is not a quotation from the Old Testament, but judicial processes for murder are mentioned in Exodus (21:22) and Numbers (35:16-33).

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; 

By speaking in the first person (“but I say to you”), Jesus shows that his authority is above that of Moses and the prophets; that is to say, he has divine authority. No mere man could claim such authority.

In Jesus’ teaching, not only is murder forbidden but also any attitude or behavior toward another that lacks respect or causes that person harm.

and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; 

The original Aramaic word for “Raqa” is difficult to translate, but it indicates utter contempt.

In Jewish society, one’s name carried heavy significance. To publicly call another an insulting name was to shame that person and deprive them of an honored place in society.

and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

What is translated here as “fool” is an even stronger term of abuse than raqa. It implies that a person has lost all moral and religious sense, to the point of apostasy. Instead of verbal abuse, the Jews would often show their feelings by spitting on the ground.

Gehenna was the Jewish equivalent to hell, that is, eternal punishment.

Note how Jesus has pointed to three degrees of fault here:

  • allowing oneself to feel angry corresponds to the punishment of judgment,
  • passing an insulting remark merits the punishment of being called in front of the Sanhedrin,
  • blinding anger warrants eternal punishment.

Jesus is addressing the cancerous cause (anger), not merely the effect (murder). Harboring the passion that impels one to commit murder is as guilty an action as murder itself.

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.

When we succumb to anger, which is conceived as unavoidable, the sacred duty of reconciliation arises and that duty is urgent. One’s relationship with others is a dimension of one’s relationship with God, therefore reconciliation with others is a prerequisite for being in right relationship with God. For this reason, the duty of reconciliation must precede gifts being brought to the altar.

This teaching was quite radical. Worship was to a Jew the most sacred action in which a man could engage, but Jesus is teaching that reconciliation supersedes even the act of devotion. However, Jesus knows that it’s impossible to engage in authentic worship until you’re at peace with your neighbor.

Note that we must not only pardon those who have offended us, we must be the first to seek reconciliation even when the fault seemingly lies with the other party.

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.”

Matthew adds the metaphor of a courtroom case to make his point, a metaphor with an eschatological overtone that adds to the severity of the commandment.

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