Friday, 10 March 2017

Lent Week 1 Friday

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28; Ps 129/130; Matthew 5:20-26

It sometimes happens that the Lectionary reading is too short and in danger of being misunderstood without its context. This is true of the first reading today, from Ezekiel 18. Really, it is necessary to read the whole chapter to see what the Lord is saying through his prophet. The main point in the section we do read is that each individual person carries his or her own moral responsibility: our standing in the sight of God seems to depend, then, on what we ourselves have done, good or bad, and not on the behaviour of the family from which we come or the people to which we belong. Think of how outraged we rightly feel where a family is punished for the crimes of one of its members. It is clearly just that individuals be asked to carry moral responsibility for their own actions: they cannot blame anybody else and nor should anyone else be blamed.

Or is it as simple as that? Human communities and societies continue to seek justice, equality and fairness, but these things prove elusive. A strictly just society might seem like the best thing to aim for but scripture often warns us against such a thing and does so by showing us what a strictly just society would be like. Many of the parables of Jesus do exactly this.

'What the Lord does is unjust', Ezekiel imagines people saying in response to his clear presentation of individual responsibility. 'Is it', the Lord says in response, 'or is it not what you do that is unjust, with your attempts to shift responsibility'.

An argument about justice: 'get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit' is what the Lord says at the end of this chapter of Ezekiel, anticipating a later, more famous text, where he speaks of the heart of stone being removed to be replaced by a heart of flesh instead. The heart of stone is strictly just, the heart of flesh is compassionate and merciful. If there is to be hope for humanity, strict justice is not enough: we need compassion and mercy also.

The gospel reading shows us where this heart of compassion and mercy is to be found. It may seem at first that the teaching of Jesus recorded here is simply an even stricter justice than that taught in the Hebrew scriptures - not just murder but anger towards a brother, humiliating a brother, cursing a brother - all of these merit the strictest condemnation and punishment.

So what hope have we? Well none if we want to stay within the canons of strict justice. So, Jesus continues, stay away from the altar and stay away from the court until you are reconciled with your brother. Leave your offering, be reconciled first, before you get to the court which can only offer you strict justice, a justice that is blind and, in its blindness, cruel.

It is in Jesus and from Jesus that a new heart and a new spirit are available to human beings. Of ourselves the best we can manage is an approximation of justice. The new heart and spirit brought by Jesus are those of the Father and the Holy Spirit, the divine life that is the source and destination of the world and its history.

St Thomas Aquinas puts it beautifully when he says: 'The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy in which it is rooted. Divine action is always characterised by mercy as its most radical source'. This is revealed already in the prophets, often by simply reminding us of the impossibility of human justice. The divine life of justice rooted in mercy is established as the heart of the world's history by the teaching and actions of Jesus, the merciful and compassionate Sun of Justice, and Son of God.

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