Receiving and Sharing the Surpassing Righteousness of Divine Mercy, First Friday of Lent, February 19, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Friday of the First Week of Lent
February 19, 2016
Ez 18:21-18, Ps 130, Mt 5:20-26

 

To listen to a recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that our righteousness, our justice, must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, in order not to go to Hell. The “justice” of the Pharisees was quite rigorous in terms of prayer, weekly fasting, tithing. But there were two things it lacked. First, it was external, focusing on acts rather than the heart; second, it lacked mercy. The Pharisees were the “separated ones,” those who in order to cut themselves off from sin sought to cut themselves totally off from sinners, as if they weren’t sinners themselves. That’s why they complained when Jesus was eating with Matthew and the other tax collectors, because they had no communion at all with sinners, whom they thought would just be straw for the fires of hell. Likewise, Jesus gave the three parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son in Lk 15 because they were all like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, preferring their brothers to remain dead in sin rather than rejoicing in their resurrection through reconciliation with God. Our righteousness must surpass theirs because theirs wasn’t truly “right” with God, they served him with their lips and even their deeds, but their hearts were far from him, because they didn’t realize their need for God’s mercy and God’s desire to transform them by that mercy. The whole practice of Lent is meant to help us become like God: in fasting, we learn to hunger for what he hungers, as we saw last week with Isaiah; in almsgiving, we share in his providential care, passing on to others who need it more than we do what God has first given to us; and in prayer, allowing his thoughts to become our thoughts and his ways our ways. Today in the readings we enter into these truths.
  • God responds to a complaint he knows has welled up in the hearts of the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day and one that arises in every age. It certainly arose for the Scribes and Pharisees whose righteousness ours needs to surpass. “The Lord’s way is not fair!,” we can complain. Ezekiel had described clearly what the Lord’s way is. On the one hand, “if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed,  if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die.  None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.” On the other hand, “if the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil, the same kind of abominable things that the wicked man does, can he do this and still live? None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered, because he has broken faith and committed sin; because of this, he shall die.”
  • The first way we and others complain that the Lord’s way is not just is that it is a way of mercy for sinners. Someone who has lived a sinful live for decades all of a sudden converts and God says he shall live. God won’t remember the crimes he has committed. True justice, we say, is to hold people accountable forever. Like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we don’t rejoice when our lost brother is found and dead brother comes to life again. Our self-identity is caught up, somehow, in a sense of spiritual superiority, and when he’s restored to the relationship with the Father he should have had all along, we resent it rather than rejoice. But that shows how much we need to be converted. Jesus also encountered it over and again in the resistance of the scribes and Pharisees to his work reconciling, embracing and eating with sinners. God tells us today through Ezekiel, “Do I indeed derive any pleasure for the death of the wicked? Do I not rather rejoice when he turns away from evil that he may live?” God’s way is a way of mercy. He doesn’t forget the needs of justice. In fact, he himself takes on our flesh to pay the price we deserved. But his mercy surpasses what our deeds deserve. And that should give us hope. These are thoughts that the Year of Mercy is meant to help us assimilate to the full.
  • The second way the people of Ezekiel’s time and ours complain that God’s way is unfair is that it is a way of justice for those who refuse to convert, including those who had lived a very good life for a while but then turned away from God and persevered in that alienation. There’s a sense of added shock and scandal when a virtuous man diverts his heart from God to malevolence and maleficence. Most often these are not sins of the flesh but of calculation and corruption because through the virtuous life in most cases one knew better. We want to say that if God were fair, he would balance out the life: 70 years of virtue and only several months of vice. But it’s here that God holds us accountable and makes us responsible for our decisions made in freedom. For a person in this circumstance, as long as he still lives, it’s possible for him to turn back to the Lord and live, to leave his wicked deeds behind. His path, too, can be a way of mercy, but only if he recognizes what he’s done and repents. Previous good deeds don’t excuse or outweigh the turning of one’s heart from the Lord and the persevering in that sin at the end. It’s our way, God tells us, that is unjust if we don’t want to hold someone accountable for their choices, if we refuse to recognize that we are always in need of God’s mercy, that we’re always in the first category of those needing to convert.
  • Conversion, as I like to emphasize, involves three moments. The first is averting (turning away) from things that are not of God. The second is adverting (turning toward) God and the things of God. And the third is converting, turning with the Lord, which is a continual process. As life is dynamic, there’s always an opportunity for us to turn away from whatever keeps us from God, turn toward him in mercy, and turn with him in life. But there’s likewise a chance that we can turn away from him, turn toward sin, and begin to walk in the way of sinners. Jesus describes the journey we’re on in the Gospel as a walk to court to meet the judge. He calls us to be like him and to seek mercy rather than justice. “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” If we seek justice from our adversary rather than reconciliation, we may very well end up receiving justice, being found guilty, and suffering the consequences. He says we anticipate that journey every time we come to pray and he calls us to live that reconciliation for us to pray well. “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” We can’t offer the gift of ourselves to God in a pleasing way if we seek to do so with unreconciled hearts and lives. It’s not enough that our external deeds are in conformity with God’s law, but he wants our hearts to be as well — not only not killing our brother but not being angry or insulting him or harboring any of the thoughts in which we treat our brother as dead within us. Jesus is calling us to convert from these thoughts rather than to persevere in them. If we convert, we will find mercy; if we persevere we will find justice, and the words of the Psalm remind us that if the Lord is strictly just, we’re in trouble: “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?”
  • Today as we come forward to present ourselves to the altar, we ask the Lord’s grace so that we may turn from any ways that are evil, both in our actions and in our thoughts, seek reconciliation with all those whom we have hurt and with all who have hurt us, so that together with them we may rejoice in the celebration in the House of Father, where the Father prepares for us not a fatted calf but a Lamb looking as if he has been slain. The Lord wants us to live and we live by his mercy as we prepare to receive that holy offering that Jesus gave for the remission of sins, reconciling all of us to the Father.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
EZ 18:21-28

Thus says the Lord GOD:
If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed,
if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.
None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him;
he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.
Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?
says the Lord GOD.
Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way
that he may live?And if the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil,
the same kind of abominable things that the wicked man does,
can he do this and still live?
None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered,
because he has broken faith and committed sin;
because of this, he shall die.
You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!”
Hear now, house of Israel:
Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies,
it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.
But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed,
does what is right and just,
he shall preserve his life;
since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed,
he shall surely live, he shall not die.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7A, 7BC-8

R. (3) If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.
R. If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
R. If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the LORD
more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
Let Israel wait for the LORD.
R. If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?
For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
R. If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?

Gospel
MT 5:20-26

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you,
unless your righteousness surpasses that
of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother, Raqa,
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”

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