Hos 6:1-6; Ps 51:3,4,18-21; Lk 18:9-14: Why is the LORD not pleased with sacrifices? Why does he not spurn a humbled and contrite heart? From the first days of The Covenant, the LORD wanted his people to love him and to love their neighbor. Why does God want our love, fickle and weak as it is? The LORD does not need our love. Yet, he wants our love. Perhaps this is what Saint John of the Cross was trying to teach us when he wrote that we become what we love. If we turn aside from the LORD to other gods, who are naught, if we love the works of our own hands, our idols, we become what we love. We become our voiceless, sightless, deaf, senseless, idols. This is the tragedy of false religion. This is even the danger of true religion. Burnt offerings and holocausts can become an idol. Our devotional and liturgical practices can become an idol. We can prefer the good vibes and comfortable feelings we get out of our prayers and penances over the painful challenges and uncomfortable preaching of the prophets. The Covenant with the LORD makes absolute demands on us. The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ reveals the only true and pleasing sacrifice. Upon the altar of Christ’s sacrifice, we are washed from our guilt, cleansed of our sins, wiped free of our offense. In his bountiful kindness, the LORD rebuilds Jerusalem and is pleased with our sacrifices, our prayer, penance, and generosity. Through the prophecy of Hosea, we hear the LORD say, “I slew them by the words of my mouth”. The LORD cuts through to the heart and reveals our need for repentance. In the gospel for today, the Lord Jesus tells a short parable about a sinner who knew how to pray from the depths of his crushed and humbled heart. This man returned home at peace and joy in the mercy of the LORD.
What a painful word from Hosea. What a hard message from the prophet. Indeed, the LORD smote our ancestors, and he slew them with the words of his mouth. Yet, this word of the LORD still stings: “Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” Our piety is so thin; like dew, it dries quickly long before the noonday sun. Lent is a time to face this challenge headlong. Lent is a time for severe self-examination. After all the years of favor, after so many Lents, why is our piety not pure and profound? Perhaps, we still have to return to the LORD. Perhaps, we still need to be rent. Perhaps, we have yet to be struck and wounded by his fiery and tender touch. When we strive to know the LORD, then we learn what God desires; love not sacrifice, and knowledge of God, not burnt offerings. This is the consistent message of his prophets. This is the constant refrain of every Lent. Perhaps, this year we will let The LORD into those dark and hidden places deep within our hearts. Perhaps, this year we will come to know our own deepest desires, the ones we so successfully keep hidden from others and ourselves. Perhaps, after two days he will revive us, and on the third day he will raise us up with Christ the Lord so that we may live in his presence. Such is the joy of Lent and the endless gladness of Easter.
Who among us needs to hear this parable? Who among us is convinced of his own righteousness? Who among us despises the unrighteous? Perhaps these questions can be answered honestly only with reference to the story the Lord Jesus told and to our reactions as we hear it yet again. When we come together for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which means the public work of thanksgiving, for what are we grateful? Perhaps we are painfully aware of just how united we are to all who seek God, to all who seek mercy and forgiveness throughout the world. When we come into the presence of the Lord Jesus in the tabernacle during a visit to the church for what do we pray? Perhaps for the crystal tears of repentance that issue forth from the same twisted heart as our sinful desires and decisions. This Lent is the acceptable time, the favorable time to humble ourselves. We may not have another Lent to do so.