Today’s readings give us concrete ways to observe Lent. In the first reading the Prophet Hosea encourages us to “return to the Lord” who will “heal us”. This is a direct reminder of the spirit of Ash Wednesday: as the ashes are placed on our forehead the words accompanying this action mirror what Hosea says, “Return” from our pettiness and sinfulness to the Lord and open ourselves to the Gospel. Clearly we have here a challenge to our status quo.
The psalm response helps to focus ourselves properly, “It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.” Mercy, in this sense, calls for a change in us – our behavior, our way of dealing with situations and persons in our daily lives. “Sacrifice”, on the other hand, seeks to change God – God’s attitude towards us, eliciting Him to be favorable towards us. In this it echoes the last words from the Hosea reading: “for it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Today’s gospel models for us the way we are to relate to God. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector present two models of how to relate to God. The Pharisee, a religious authority, and a tax collector, a publically branded sinner both went to the temple to pray.
The Pharisee was “convinced of (his) own righteousness” and he prayed out of that certainty, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity –greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” He then proceeds to tell God what he does and how he acts, “I fast. . . I pay tithes. . .” Can I see in the Pharisee’s prayer my own inclination to list the good things that I am “doing” or “avoiding” during Lent with an implied “what are you doing for me, O God?”
On the other hand the tax collector, a known sinner, stood off to a distance and prayed, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” The gospel goes on to say that the tax collector went away “justified” while the Pharisee did not. Why? Because “(the one) who exalts himself will be humbled.”
What a marvelous lesson is here for us in the stance towards God of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector. The Pharisee is led into pride and the tax collector is led to humility. The Pharisee saves himself while the tax collector recognizes that he is far from being saved and rests that salvation on God. He went home “justified” and the Pharisee did not.
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