23Feb 23 February. Friday of Week 1 of Lent

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna

1st Reading: Ezekiel 18:21-28

Personal responsibility to replace the idea of shared guilt

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.

Responsorial Psalm (from Ps 130)

Response: If you O Lord should mark our guilt, who would survive?

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading. R./

If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you. R./

My soul iswaiting for the Lord,
I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
and Israel on the Lord. R./

Because with the Lord
there is mercy and fullness of redemption,
Israel indeed he will redeem
from all its iniquity. R./

Gospel: Matthew 5:20-26

True justice goes deeper than simply keeping a set of laws

Jesus said to his disciples, “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.”


Freedom and responsibility

Ezekiel calls on his readers to persevere in doing good across a lifetime. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus roots the discernment of good and evil in the depths of the human heart. We must do more than keep a set of rules, stopping short of murdering others and stealing their goods; we must aim to be at peace with them and not harbour anger or resentment. Jesus names the objects of our patience and kindness: they are our brother and our sister. At first, this designation might seem to make the practice of tolerance somewhat easier. Yet common experience tells us that people often lose their temper more quickly and find forgiveness harder within their own family.

This journey of reconciliation begins first in our heart when we decide to do all in our power to win back our brother or sister. On that condition we can continue with our Eucharist in good conscience. The effort must be continued for, as Ezekiel warns: “If the virtuous person turns from the path of virtue to do evil . . . has broken faith and committed sin, . . . he shall die!”

Does this 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 (Ezek 36:26-27). Then there is the assurance us that whatever be our offense against life and goodness, God forgives us if we turn from our evil ways. Ezekiel’s understanding of God’s outlook concludes with this great phrase, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone . . . Return and live!”

Invited to go beyond

In today’s gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to a virtue that goes deeper than the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees. One of the ten commandments of the Jewish Law was “You shall not kill.” The call of Jesus goes deeper than that; it looks beyond the action of killing to the underlying attitudes and emotions which lead people to kill or injure each other. Jesus invites us to look below the surface of what people do to why they do it. He calls for a renewal of the heart and mind; that is what we mean by “repentance” or “conversion.” That deep-seated renewal that Jesus calls for is not something we can bring about on our own. We need the Holy Spirit to work that kind of deep transformation within ourselves. A traditional prayer puts it very clearly: “Come Holy Spirit, fill my heart, and kindle in me the fire of your love.” It is a prayer I am very drawn to. It calls on the Holy Spirit to recreate deep within us the love which shaped the person of Jesus; it prays for the roots of that deeper virtue which Jesus speaks about in today’s gospel. [MH]

Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, bishop and martyr

Polycarp is connected with the major Church figures shortly after the time of the apostles. The account of his martyrdom is the first after that of St Stephen. He was a was a disciple of the apostle John and became bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor. He knew both Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyon, and was respected as a link between the apostolic age and later times.

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