18Mar Friday in the First Week of Lent

Ezekiel 18:21ff. Ezekiel’s teaching about personal responsibility offsets the older focus on the guilt of the clan.

Matthew 5:20ff. The true righteousness, that goes deeper than merely external observance of a set of laws.

Ezekiel’s Principle

The prophet Ezekiel places before us God’s expectation that we persevere in doing good across a lifetime. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus roots this expectation in the depths of the heart. We must do more than externally avoid murdering our brother or sister; we must interiorly be at peace with them and never harbor anger or resentment.

Jesus also names the recipient of our patience and kindliness; he calls this person our brother or our sister. At first, this designation might seem to make the practice of tolerance and helpfulness all the easier. Yet our common experience tells us that we lose our temper more quickly and muster the strength to forgive far more slowly in the case of our own family, relation or neighbourhood. Family feuds flare up unexpectedly and last for generations.

Once we are reconciled in our hearts, as Jesus expects, then the prophet Ezekiel declares that this new relationship of trust, compassion and assistance must not be a quick, momentary expression. It is not to be easily forgotten as we conveniently avoid our newly found brother or sister for the rest of our life. Consistently and daily we are expected to live together as one family.

This continuous bond of affection and mutual help is so important that Jesus states: “If you bring your gift to the altar and then recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, go first to be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” These words sear a quick, straight path into our conscience, as we are gathered around our Eucharistic table.

This journey to our brother or sister can be made in our heart first; we form a determination to do all in our power to win back our brother or sister. On that condition which practically asks us to be forgiving, patient, and tolerant of differences, we can continue with our Eucharist. If we fail, however, to carry through on our promise and ignore our brother or sister, then Ezekiel rings out the deadly warning: “If the virtuous person turns from the path of virtue to do evil . . . has broken faith and committed sin, … he shall die!”

These divine expectations, enunciated by Ezekiel and Jesus, touch at times upon the heroic, as we are not asked but commanded to forgive and be reconciled, on pain of death and the fires of Gehenna. Does God ask too much? God asks nothing without first giving us the grace of a “new heart and … a new spirit” and putting his own spirit within us (see Ez 36:26-27). Secondly, God provides his own compelling example. In Ezekiel God assures us that no matter how wickedly we have offended him – whatever be the offense against life and goodness – God forgives at once if we turn from our evil ways. Ezekiel concludes this extraordinary chapter with God’s admission, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies . . . Return and live!”

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:21-28

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?

But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.

Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.

Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.

Gospel: Matthew 5:20-26

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.