Mar 26, 2022: Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

1st Reading – 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.

Today we read from Hosea once again.

“Come, let us return to the LORD,

As with yesterday’s reading, this passage opens a call to conversion.

It’s unclear whether these are words from Hosea to the people, calling them to repentance, or words of the people to one another, encouraging one another to seek the Lord and humble themselves before him in hopes of finding mercy. Either interpretation is appropriate.

it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.

The people acknowledge that they have incurred God’s punishment and simultaneously express their trust in his healing mercy. Having suffered, they are ready to repent and return to the Lord.

He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence.

The people expect God to deliver them from their current condition, a condition so desolate that it is likened to being left for dead.

Not only that, but this deliverance will happen in a short period of time. Some Christian writers beginning with Tertullian read this verse as referring to Christ’s burial and resurrection. The New Testament never quotes this verse as a prophecy, but one cannot completely rule out the connection.

Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD;

When the people return to God, they will be brought into a deeper knowledge of him and his ways. In order to live righteously, they must value this knowledge of God and strive to attain it.

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.”

Knowledge of God and the consolations that result from this relationship with him are as certain as the rising of the sun or the arrival of the spring rains.

What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah?

The perspective shifts. It is now God who speaks.

The names Ephraim and Judah represent the northern and southern kingdoms, respectively, referring to the dominant tribes of each.

Clearly God, who is all-powerful, is not actually at a loss for what to do. He speaks in the manner of men, to show their absurdity and unreasonableness.

Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.

Whatever occasional righteousness the people displayed was ephemeral, quickly vanishing like the morning dew in the heat of the day.

For this reason I smote them through the prophets, I slew them by the words of my mouth;

The word of God proclaimed by the prophets is effective and accomplishes what it promises: in this case, punishment for their sinfulness and lack of piety.

For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, 

The Hebrew word translated here as “love” is chesed, the same word that was previously rendered as “piety.”  It can refer to kindness or love between people, the devotional piety of people towards God, or the love and mercy of God towards humanity.

Sacrifice was certainly prescribed by the law; however, the people’s sacrifices were only acceptable when accompanied by chesed (see Isaiah 1:10, 11).

These words have had a considerable impact on Christian tradition, because they get to the heart of what religion is all about, and because our Lord quotes them more than once (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) to underscore his teaching that God judges not to condemn but to save.

and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Chesed accompanies and flows from knowledge of God.

God’s dispute with the people was not about a lack of sacrifices, but a lack of justice, mercy, and knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).

Psalm 51: 3-4, 18-21ab

R. (Hosea 6:6) It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.

Today’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 51, the best known of the seven Penitential Psalms (the others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143). This Christian designation dates from the 7th century AD for psalms suitable to express repentance.

Although it is considered a lament, it also contains elements of a confession and prayer for forgiveness. Christians often use this psalm to pray for God’s forgiveness and petition him for inner renewal by the Holy Spirit.

If it seems familiar, Psalm 51 has already been used several times in the daily Mass in this Lenten season. It is the penitential psalm par excellence.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. 

The passage begins with a plea for mercy in the face of his guilt, appealing to God’s covenant dispositions: goodness (hesed) and compassion or womb-love, the kind of attachment a mother has to the child she has carried in her womb (rahămîm). The first refers to the steadfast love that characterizes that relationship between covenant partners; the second is the attitude God has toward those who have violated the covenant bond.

Of the three words used for sin in this psalm, “offense” (pesha’) is the word that implies a breach in relationship. The term itself is a collective, denoting the sum of misdeeds and rebellion of the gravest nature, such as a violation of the covenant bond.

Appealing to these dispositions of divine graciousness sets the context for the confession of sin and for prayer for transformation that follows.

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.

“Guilt” (‘āwōn) denotes twisted behavior or perversion. It too has a collective connotation, meaning that this is not merely one infraction but a manner of behavior.

The third term, hattā’â, is the most commonly used word for “sin” and is a much more technical term. It comes from the verb that means “miss the mark” and it connotes violation of some law or statute. The failure involved is usually deliberate, not accidental.

The psalmist uses three very dynamic verbs when asking for forgiveness:

  • “wipe out,” which suggests vigorous erasing,
  • “wash,” which implies the treading or pounding that was involved in washing clothes, and
  • “cleanse,” which indicates a deep cleansing of dross from metal or disease from the body.

The very language shows that the admission of guilt and the plea for forgiveness are profound and comprehensive.

For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a holocaust, you would not accept it.

The interior nature of the psalmist’s transformation can be seen in the character of worship that flows from it. External performance, regardless of how faithfully it is done, is not enough. The psalmist goes so far as to say that God is not even pleased with practices of worship. This may sound exaggerated, but it is in keeping with the theme of inner transformation so prominent in the prophetic reading and psalm response.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.

Instead of burnt offerings or other external sacrifices, the psalmist offers his own heart and spirit. This is the sacrifice we must offer, and this sacrifice is one that is acceptable to the Lord.

The inner renewal effected by God is now complete.

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.

Now the psalmist makes a plea on Jerusalem’s behalf similar to the one he made for himself. His appeal for the walls to be rebuilt may indicate that the psalm was composed after the city’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in the times of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Sacrifices offered in the temple will be acceptable to God only when he rebuilds the holy city — just as man is pleasing to God only when he has created a new heart in him.

Gospel – 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 whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Today’s gospel reading is the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, which Jesus taught within the overall context of an eschatological sermon.

Today’s story is so well-known that we risk missing the full force of it. It gives an example of divine reversal that surprises hearers and obliges them to examine anew the values and standards by which they live.

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.

Luke gives us very clear information about the audience Jesus is addressing.

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 

Pharisees were religious leaders who, though they were relatively liberal in their interpretation of the Bible, were quite conservative in their rigorous adherence to religious discipline (see Acts 26:5, Galatians 1:14).

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.’

The man is a model of Pharisaic observance. Not only is he innocent of greed, dishonesty, and adultery, his practices of piety exceed the requirements of the law. He fasts twice a week, when fasting is only mandated for the Day of Atonement; he tithes on all of his possessions, not merely on his earnings, as the law states. It would appear that the man is above reproach. His description of himself is probably accurate, and his negative estimation of the tax collector may be accurate as well.

As correct as his self-assessment may be, this is more of a litany of self-congratulation than a prayer. He attributes his many virtues to his own merits, reminds God of all the good he is doing, and makes God out to be in debt to him. He doesn’t realize that his upstanding practices do not add up to righteousness, that is, being in right relationship with God.

The Pharisee believes that he has earned God’s favor; he does not realize that righteousness is a gift rather than something earned.

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.’

Tax collectors were despised because they were part of the economic system put in place by the occupying Romans. They were paid by adding fees to the taxes collected. Since there was no standard scale governing this added charge, and tax collectors often exacted exorbitant amounts. Hence, tax collectors were basically seen as robbers of their own people for the benefit of their enemy, Rome. In addition, they were seen by the Jews as not only greedy, but idolatrous: the coins they collected had Caesar’s image on them and were thus considered graven images (because of Caesar’s claims to divinity).

This particular tax collector does not deny his involvement in such offensive practices; in fact, his prayer for mercy seems to be an admission of his guilt. His demeanor is radically different than that of the Pharisee. He stands at a distance, suggesting that the other man either stood in front or in the midst of those in the Temple. He does not raise his eyes to heaven, suggesting that the Pharisee did. He beat his breast (a sign of repentance and mourning) while the Pharisee’s arms were conspicuously raised high. His repentant manner marks him as a sinner.

The word translated as “be merciful” (hiláskomai) literally means “cover over.” From it comes the word hilastērion, the gold plate on top of the ark of the covenant believed to be the place from which God dispensed mercy.

I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; 

There is no question about which of these men has lived a righteous life and which has not. The men have described themselves correctly.

However, Jesus’ evaluation turns the story upside down. He startles the audience by having the Pharisee the villain of the piece and the despised tax collector the hero.

for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

God, who never despises a contrite heart, resists the proud and gives his grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6).

Reflecting on the Pharisee’s prayer, we see that his self-estimation is really a self-eulogy. While he may be living an upright life, he takes credit for his virtue, and he claims superiority over others who may not be as compliant. He does not realize that he needs forgiveness for his pride and his judgmental attitude toward others. His prayer is not pleasing to God, because his pride causes him to be self-centered and to despise others. The Pharisee asked for nothing and therefore received nothing.

The tax collector, on the other hand, acknowledges that justification comes from God. He recognizes his unworthiness and is sincerely sorry for his sins: he has the necessary dispositions for God to pardon him. He prayed that his sins be expiated, and his prayer was answered.

The closing statement is the final judgment. The men’s lives may have been the reverse of each other, but the judgment of Jesus exposes the real reversal.

The self-righteous and judgmental people in Jesus’ audience are being taught that they, like the Pharisee, do not offer authentic prayer and are not in right relationship with God, even though they think they are.

If, when we hear this parable, we say to ourselves, “Thank God I am not like that Pharisee,” then the parable is directed just as much at us as it is at Jesus’ original audience.

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