1st Reading – 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!
The first part of the Book of Isaiah is usually referred to as “First Isaiah.” Its prophetic passages are set against the background of the Assyrian threat to Judah and Jerusalem during the second half of the 8th century BC.
Isaiah links the people’s distress under the Assyrian siege with the fact that they have distanced themselves from God and calls them to conversion.
This reading is proclaimed during Lent to help us check whether we have given God the worship due him, and as a call to a sincere change of heart.
Hear the word of the LORD, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah!
Harsh words call the Israelites to attention. The people of Judah are identified with Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that are the epitome of sin and rejection of God.
Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil;
God takes no pleasure in punishing wickedness; he desires that all whom he loves would repent.
There is hope here: God does not reject the people outright as a hopeless case; instead, he calls on them to forsake their sins.
learn to do good.
In order to lead the sort of lives that God wants, we need to be properly schooled in sound doctrine.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
Holiness in life calls not only for sound doctrine but requires the consistent practice of virtue, day after day, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD:
The Hebrew word used here refers to the arbitration of legal disputes. As we will see, God offers to settle his case with Israel on the basis of a change of behavior. For Israel it is a life or death choice; life in conformity with God’s will or death for continued disobedience.
Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.
The Lord shows his readiness to forgive. Even the greatest sinners, if they truly repent, shall have their sins forgiven.
If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land;
God wills that the people should have all the happiness and comfort they could desire.
but if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!
God takes the attitude of an earthly judge. If the people continue in their obstinate disobedience, they will be abandoned to ruin. Because God is infinitely just, the sentence of the law will be executed upon those who refuse to repent.
Psalm 50: 8-9, 16bc-17, 21, 23
R. To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
In this psalm, God addresses the people directly, instructing them on how to be truly holy.
“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.”
God has no need for burnt offerings; he is perfect and omnipotent. However, he does not dismiss them outright. He accepts them as praise from those who offer them sincerely.
God’s complaint is with the attitude of those who try to use them to curry favor and who seek to put him under an obligation, as if the Almighty Creator was in need of anything.
“Why do you recite my statutes, and profess my covenant with your mouth, though you hate discipline and cast my words behind you?”
God calls out the hypocrisy of those who proclaim his commandments but fail to obey them.
As Saint Paul informed the Jews of his time: To know the Law, or even to teach it, is of no avail if they dishonor God by breaking it (Romans 2:17-24).
“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.
God assures the wicked that his righteous judgment awaits them if they don’t mend their ways.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that goes the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
By way of contrast with the wicked, God identifies those who please him: those who “go the right way” and who offer sacrifices with sincerity.
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.”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus issues a scathing denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
The scribes, who for the most part sided with the Pharisees, had the function of educating the people in the Law of Moses, which is why they were said to have “taken their seat on the chair of Moses.”
Hebrew tradition, not recorded in the Old Testament, holds that the interpretation of the Law was carried on through an unbroken chain of scribes all the way back to Moses. Similarly, we speak of the Pope as teaching from the “chair of Peter.”
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.
While Jesus recognizes their authority to teach the Law as legitimate successors of Moses, he criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for the disparity that exists between what they teach and how they live. This disparity is evidence of the duplicity of their lives.
Essentially Jesus counsels the crowd: “Do as they say, not as they do.”
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.
Out of their devotion to the Law, the Pharisees developed a vast array of detailed minor rules, referred to as the “fence around the Law,” meant to ensure obedience to the commandments. This collection of rules, which eventually reached 613 in number, came to be an impossible burden for the people, and the scribes and the Pharisees did nothing to alleviate this onus.
Contrast this with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
All their works are performed to be seen.
The scribes and Pharisees have become self-important. Their actions are designed to attract public honor and attention. See Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18 for Jesus’ contrasting teaching: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.”
They widen their phylacteries
Devout men scrupulously adhered to the admonition in Deuteronomy 6:8 to bind the Scriptures on their hands and foreheads. This led to the practice of placing scriptural passages in small leather boxes called phylacteries and binding them on their foreheads and upper left arms, as a way to observe this admonition literally (instead of figuratively, as the regulation was probably intended).
There was nothing wrong with this, except when they widened the phylacteries for the sole purpose of everyone seeing them.
and lengthen their tassels.
Tassels with blue cord were attached to the four corners of the outer garment as reminders of the law, in observance of Numbers 15:38-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.
As with the width of the phylacteries, the tassels were enlarged out of ostentation. Both of these practices came to reflect the magnitude of the wearer’s devotion.
They love places of honor at banquets,
In addition to the outward displays like wide phylacteries and lengthy tassels, the Pharisees and scribes sought other ways to be treated with deference and privilege. At banquets, they desired to be seated in the places of the honor flanking the host, the most honored sitting at the right, the second most honored at the left.
See Luke 14:7-11 for Jesus’ contrasting teaching: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor…”
seats of honor in synagogues,
In the synagogue, the back seats were assigned to children and the unimportant; the further front the seat, the greater the honor. The most honored seats of all were those that faced the congregation: If you were seated there, people could see that you were present, and you could act piously to impress them.
greetings in marketplaces,
In public settings, it was customary for those of inferior station to salute the more important members of society — and the more important the person, the more elaborate the salutation. The scribes and Pharisees loved ostentatious greetings.
Though courtesy demands that marks of respect be given proportionate to the dignity of a person, to seek greetings was a self-serving status symbol.
and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
“Rabbi” means “my great one” or “my master,” a teacher of the law. The title had only recently come into use as a technical term for an authorized Jewish teacher-sage.
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 Messiah.
Jesus rejects three honorary titles, declaring that such pomposity should have no place among his followers. His is to be a community of equals, and so his followers must shun any titles that implied status.
If this prohibition were taken literally, it would mean that we shouldn’t call our physician “doctor,” which means “learned one,” or anyone else “mister,” because that means “master,” or our physical father “father.” What Jesus forbids is the use of titles for mere ostentation.
Jesus is also teaching that we are not to use these terms in a childish way that refuses to question authority. Titles aren’t to be given without recognizing that any “fatherhood” one might have is in God, from whose heavenly Fatherhood the authority of earthly fatherhood is derived.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
The passage concludes with a reversal of fortunes, the kind of shocking statement so characteristic of Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus insists that every form of authority, particularly in the context of religion, should be exercised as a form of service to others.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Jesus simply turns ambition around: we should have ambition to serve instead of ambition for personal gain.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Finally, Jesus stresses the need for true humility in order to follow him.
Those who exalt themselves now will experience eschatological humiliation; those who humble themselves now will enjoy eschatological exaltation.