You do this, and I should keep silence?
Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
Psalm 49 : 21, 23
‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.
I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.
That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Matthew 25: 34-40
I confess I still tend to associate holiness with piety. But the rest of the passage from Leviticus, and the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel suggest otherwise. God says, ‘be holy’; what follows is not an order for prayer and worship, but instructions in dealing with our neighbours. To live charitably–that is holiness.
So Jesus identifies with the needy: I was hungry, I was naked, I was thirsty, I was in prison.
Jesus changes everything. We expect to find God in holy places; he comes to us in a stable. We encounter God in the Eucharist; we also meet God in the person of the hungry, homeless stranger. Jesus is the image of the invisible God; in him the fullness of the deity was pleased to dwell. And he says he dwells among us still–in our hearts by the Holy Spirit; in his holy church, his body and his bride; and in those who hunger and thirst, those who are sick or in prison.
If I cannot love my brother or sister, whom I can see, then how can I say I love God, whom I cannot see? And how can I profess love for God while failing to love his image in the world, in every person? Holiness is as horizontal as it is vertical. And I am not very good at either loving God or loving neighbor, I realise. I need that new heart, that heart of flesh, that God wants to create in me, the heart fit to receive his love and to pour it our lavishly on others.
Lord in your mercy…
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
and speaking of wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness,
And your gloom will become like midday.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water
whose waters do not fail.
Isaiah 58:9-11 (NASB)
Incline your ear, O Lord,
and answer me;
For I am afflicted and needy.
Do preserve my soul,
for I am a godly man;
O my God, save your servant
who trusts in you.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you I cry all day long.
Make glad the soul of your servant,
For to you O Lord,
I lift up my soul.
Psalm 86: 1- 4 (NASB)
Isaiah 58 is so beautiful that I almost want just to type it over again, and more of it. What can I possibly say in addition to ‘the mouth of the Lord’? Or I might just add the passage from Matthew’s gospel that tells of the calling of Levi, and concludes with Jesus’ explanation that he came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Today’s Mass readings are rich, and in some ways quite straightforward: God calls us to receive his mercy. Sinners need it, and the psalmist prays for it. God also calls us to be merciful. So Isaiah reminds us, in the loveliest prose.
That might, though, leave us thinking that we receive mercy and then give it. Maybe (I am sure sometimes this is my unconscious supposition) we should be full before we give–satisfied by God’s mercy, we show that mercy to others. But Isaiah suggests that it doesn’t work that way. Isaiah calls us to ‘satisfy the desire of the afflicted’ from the discomfort of our ‘scorched places’ and in the frailty of our weak bones. The ‘spring of water’ is not what we are before we attend to the needy, but is what God makes in us as we do.
I find this a very hard saying. With four young children–including a toddler and a girl with Down Syndrome who’s just about to enter adolescence–and a challenging job as a lecturer in a theological college, I often feel stretched pretty thin. Usually I feel more like an empty pail than a spring of water. Can I refuse to meditate on my emptiness, and look for the ‘hungry’ and the ‘afflicted’ (‘look out … for the interests of others’ says Philippians 2.4!)? Maybe. Maybe that is what it is, concretely, to ‘lift up my soul’ to the Lord, to trust in God for my help, my strength, and my satisfaction.
Whether I find myself able or not, it seems like Lent is a good time to try.
Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Isaiah 58:6, 7 (NASB)
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God,
You will not despise.
Psalms 51 :4, 17 (NASB)
What does the Lord ask of us? The passage from Isaiah emphasises ‘do justice, love mercy’; Psalm 51 reminds us to ‘walk humbly with God’. Isaiah calls for love of neighbour and care for the poor–which King David failed to exhibit towards Uriah.
Is that why David describes his sin in this way? ‘Against you, you only, I have sinned’ strikes me as somewhat mistaken. Surely David’s sin is against Bathsheba and Uriah also, maybe even in the first place. But no. God takes responsibility for the care of the poor and the oppressed, and calls us to participate in his love and compassion, and to show his mercy and consolation. Failing to live according to God’s statutes can have a devastating impact on others, and yet our sin is always against God as much as against our fellow human beings.
Upon being convicted of his great sin, David was perhaps a bit stuck. Although he was king, he had no power to put right what he had done wrong: Uriah was dead, and David was to blame. If forgiveness had to come first from the human victim of his sin, David could not receive forgiveness. Only God, who has the power to create and redeem, can cover our sins.
I confess I do not particularly like this implication. My instinct about Psalm 51.4 is that it misses the very real and tragic horizontal consequences of our sin. Very often, when we sin, we hurt other people. To those people, I think, we owe an apology. But that is not all: I think we ought to try to make amends. I am the one who is mistaken, though, if I believe that our efforts at restitution actually make anything ‘right’. Absolution for us and healing for those we have hurt both come from God, from God alone. However fully we can pardon, and however generously we make restitution, we cannot fix what our sins have broken. Only God can do that: pardon and restitution are our participation in God’s redemption, not the redemption itself. Even if we do all that Isaiah urges us to do, the light that breaks forth–‘our’ light–is God’s light breaking forth in us.
And that light shines even in the darkest darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Deo gratias.
From the Psalm for Mass today (93 ):
When I think, ‘I have lost my foothold’,
your mercy, Lord, holds me up.
When cares increase in my heart,
your consolation calms my soul.
What could I possibly add to that?
Only this: Deo gratias.