Saturday in the Third Week of Lent
Ho 6:1ff. The prophet vibrantly calls us to return to the Lord. This conversion is to be expressed in our lifestyle, since God desires steadfast love and not external sacrifices.
Luke 18:9ff. The Pharisee and the tax collector pray in quite different ways; the parable offers a strong lesson about pride and humility.
Not just Mouthing Words
If we know our Bible well, especially if we have memorized a lot of key passages, we have a rich storeroom of guidance, allowing us to find a good spiritual response for every occasion. The accompanying danger is that this store of memorised texts could wrap a mantle of false piety about us and so feel very theologically superior and self-righteous. But even the devil can quote Scripture for his purpose, as Shakespeare says; the demon could appear in the desert as an angel of light! If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a lot of Biblical learning can be still more perilous. Bible study could even mislead us if it is not accompanied by sincere conversion, and humble prayer.
The certainty of God’s answering our prayers was deeply imbedded in Israel’s tradition; Jesus also repeats the same confidence. Hosea quotes the people’s liturgical prayer: “Come, let us return to the Lord,. . . He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up.” This theme of salvation on the third day occurs frequently enough in the Old Testament. Jesus confirms this outstanding biblical symbol by rising from the dead “on the third day.”
God certainly answers prayers, but he can be angered by a merely external mouthing of words. For words to become true prayer, it is not enough that they be consecrated by a sacred tradition and employed in a holy setting. Words are transformed into prayer, says the prophet Hosea, by love and the knowledge of God.
In other parts of his prophecy Hosea explained what he expects these two phrases, “love” and “knowledge of God,” to mean for us, They dispel “false swearing, lying, murder, stealing and adultery” (Hos 4:1-2). When love, on the contrary, is genuine, it exemplifies the deeper meaning of its Hebrew root, hesed. Such love is basically the spontaneous and therefore obligatory response of common blood and family bond. In Israel’s culture hesed existed only in a family or clan or tribe, never between strangers or foreigners. When God declared himself a Go’el (kinsman or blood relative) of Israel, then the bond of family relationship was itself rooted in God. All equally belonged to God and consequently to one another’s family. The words of the Bible sprang from the depth of such an intimate relationship between Israel and the Lord. Israel’s words became inspired with God’s life, ideals and response, because her words were born of a relationship or union between God and Israel.
Now we understand, first why every prayer is heard, for it springs from the “blood-bond” shared between Israel and God. But we ought to comprehend as well why such sacred words can alienate. To mouth such words from a heart separated from God and from one’s neighbour is to make use of intimate symbols like a kiss or a caress to mock and to betray.
Where our love for God is deep, and its expression genuine, then it is characterized by a sense of exquisite wonder, reverential fear, humility, delicate concern over the least infraction. It does not brag of its achievements, for it never feels it has done enough. Such a person, Jesus tells us, is the publican. The pharisee’s piety, on the contrary, is like a morning cloud… it looks glorious and heavenly, but it is flimsy and it evaporates quickly. Because it looks good, it pretends to be good. It only mimics reality. But because the roots of God’s hesed are deep, there is still hope. It is steadfast love, not sacrifice, that God desires.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
A humble, contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn.
First Reading: Hosea 6:1-6
“Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.”
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”