|“The Penitent Christian” Artist and Date not cited.|
Reading I: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20
Commentary on Is 1:10, 16-20
This reading from the beginning of the Book of Isaiah contains one of what are called the “Lawsuit Oracles." They are so called because they are framed the same way as charges brought before Jewish courts were published. In this reading, the charge leveled at his audience (probably at a feast day) is a reference to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The command that God sends through the prophet is for the people to wash themselves clean, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense. Repent from the sin and return to God’s way. Note here the sin is not simply spiritual but of actions. In the same way, repentance is required through action not merely prayer.
The reading concludes with the consequences of the choices God places before them. If they accept the penitential role and return to God, they will be forgiven and good things will be theirs. If, on the other hand, they do not, eternal death awaits them.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 50:8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23
R. (23b) To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
Commentary on Ps 50:8-9,16bc-17, 21 and 23
Psalm 50 has what is known as a “Prophetic Liturgy” structure. It was probably used as part of one of the Hebrew feasts (most likely dealing with the renewal of the covenant, possibly the Feast of Tabernacles). It is also considered a “covenant lawsuit,” that is a lament against those who have violated God’s law and the covenant made with the Lord upon which the law was based. Echoing the charges leveled against Israel by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10-17), the psalmist condemns empty ritual and sacrifice not reflective of external actions and internal faith.
The psalm is didactic. Although sacrifice is mentioned, it is more the sincerity of those offerings in homage to God that is in question: “Why do you recite my statutes, and profess my covenant with your mouth, though you hate discipline and cast my words behind you?” The psalmist calls the people to authentic action that will merit God’s salvation. God wants genuine obedience and sincere praise. He rebukes the hypocritical worshiper. Used in conjunction with 1 Samuel 15:16-23, we can see this as a pronouncement against Saul’s rationalization about the will of God.
Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
Commentary on Mt 23:1-12
This passage is the introduction to the invective against the Scribes and Pharisees. It sets the stage for the “Seven Woes” which follow in the chapter. St. Matthew uses Jesus' teaching about the leaders of the Jewish faith as counter-examples of what the leaders of the Christian faith must be like. The scribes and Pharisees lead from the authority given by the Temple. According to the Gospel, they did not practice what they taught and performed their worship for others to see rather than out of true faith and worship of God.
St. Matthew continues the theme of authentic worship (that is, worship that changes the actions of the faithful). The author gives us Jesus’ discourse that upholds the Law of Moses and, at the same time, chastises those who misuse it. He describes in detail how the scribes burden the people with ritual, but do not practice that same law. The complaint is twofold: first is the rigor with which the law is interpreted (“They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders”), and second is the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees: “All their works are performed to be seen” (see also Matthew 6:1-8).
The selection promotes an interpretation of Christian leadership which is one of humility and compassion rather than one of prideful superiority. “These verses, warning against the use of various titles, are addressed to the disciples alone. While only the title ‘Rabbi' has been said to be used in addressing the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:7), the implication is that Father and ‘Master' also were. The prohibition of these titles to the disciples suggests that their use was present in Matthew's church. The Matthean Jesus forbids not only the titles but the spirit of superiority and pride that is shown by their acceptance. Whoever exalts . . . will be exalted: cf Luke 14:11.”
Recall a time in your earlier years when you got into a fight at school with a schoolmate or at home with one of your siblings. The person in authority brought you together with the person with whom you fought and said, “Alright, I want you to say you’re sorry and be friends (or shake hands).” Depending upon the depth of the argument, or the violence of the fight, and the authority figure commanding reconciliation, we responded slowly or quickly with, “Okay, I’m sorry” (usually the most insincere statement we could utter, again depending on the circumstances).
This example of insincere actions is analogous to what sacred scripture addresses in the passages we are given today. The Prophet Isaiah attacks the Hebrews for their lack of true contrition. And Jesus is going after the definition of holiness in the Gospel. He is attacking the Scribes and Pharisees for their lack of understanding about what God wants from us.
A couple of times this Lenten season we have heard this injunction, the first time on Ash Wednesday and again more recently. What Jesus is trying to get us to understand is the heart is more important than the rules. Remember how he praises the widow who gives from her need, even though it’s less than the rich give. Remember how he has instructed us not to put on airs when we pray or fast. It is interior change that Christ wants from us.
In the first reading from Isaiah, the Prophet is demanding repentance of the Hebrew people. That call comes to us coupled with Jesus strongly rebuking the religious leaders of his day about exterior enhancements (“All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.”)
If Jesus were here with us today, what would he say about our practice of the faith he left for us? Would he sadly shake his head and say, “See they fast, but they don’t really fast in their hearts.” Or, “See, they worship, but it is out of obligation, not out of love for my father.” Or, “See how they treat one another; is that the word I left them?” There is a great quote from Pope Francis who says, speaking about penitence and the Lenten mission: “Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
Exterior change is easy. We can run down and get a haircut or buy new clothes and we look like a different person. Changing our interior attitudes is much more difficult and it shows on the outside as well. Change on the inside takes constant work. It happens through conversations with God through his Son in Prayer. It happens by hanging around with the Saints and trying to emulate them. (Don’t we tell our children that who they spend time with will label them?) Who are we spending our time with, American Idol or the Lord?
Today, while our prayer continues to be sincere, we pledge also to act on our words. As a people of faith we will work diligently to insure what we believe is how we are perceived by others.
 The picture is “The Penitent Christian” Artist and Date not cited.
 See NAB footnote on Matthew 23:8-12