Saturday after Ash Wednesday: Isaiah 58:9b-14, Luke 5:27-32.
God shows us in todays’ readings His great desire to redeem us. Consider how different our God is from the gods in classical Greek culture or the nature-oriented gods of other pagan cultures. These deities have either complex personal, selfish desires that conflict with humanity or they are seemingly indifferent, only responding to humans when they implore them with sacrifices and occult rituals. Our God shows Himself to be the only and true God, above these “principalities and powers” that our Judeo-Christian tradition allows space for in a lower echelon of being. Our God is true to His own principle of creative love; He loves His creation and endlessly reaches out to it with a Father’s care.
In the first reading from Isaiah, a continuation of yesterday’s reading about false worship, God entreats His people to act in the way of goodness He has given them. He promises them that all will be well if they do so: “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” This is the Father’s words of teaching and advice to the children He loves so much. We can relate to this in our own parent-child relationships. I think I’ve said some form of His words to my own children: “Then the LORD will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land. He will renew your strength.” The truth of our God being the one true God is so evident here — all of our instincts for love and family flow from Him as our Creator.
We must be careful to orient ourselves to Him as the source of truth and goodness, rather than the other way around. We think we know what love is and tend to project this onto our maxim “God is love.” Thus, we might imagine that God agrees with a first-world, 21st century impulse to give your children all of the freedom of choice and autonomy possible (thinking that this equals love). Likewise, a century or so ago, a father would likely imagine that lessons to children are best reinforced with a beating, and would project this same “rough love” onto God. We have to let the scriptures and the Holy Spirit guide us in understanding what love and fatherhood are all about, not our own notions that arise partly as a result of our cultural circumstances.
What we discover in the scriptures is that God provides a moral framework (the Law) and boundaries for His People to guide them back to His Kingdom for eternity. At the same time, he does grant us complete autonomy with our free will, and this is an aspect of His love. That being said, He knows that an unguided free will is apt to make bad decisions, so He provides us with a clear way to live a life of love that leads back to Him. We hear this guidance in today’s first reading. It ends with a promise for those who respect this way of love, which reaches its pinnacle in Him:
If you hold back your foot on the sabbath
from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the sabbath a delight,
and the LORD’s holy day honorable;
If you honor it by not following your ways,
seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice
Then you shall delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
We see the Lenten theme of fasting, where we avoid our own interests while honoring Him. But note the timbre of His words — we shall delight in the Lord and the sabbath. This whole-hearted embrace of our Father is a delight, not a task or trial. Only God can turn our denial of self into something delightful. He created us with desires, passions, and ambitions; these things help us thrive in the world, but perhaps He also gave us these things so that we can subdue them at times for a greater purpose, namely Him. When we deny desire and passion, we are exercising a different type of muscle, a spiritual muscle. It’s not emotion, which would drive us to give in to the desires. It’s not intelligence, which would logically dictate that if you’re hungry you should eat. It’s not physical and it’s not emotional; it’s a spiritual impulse done solely because our spiritual Father and source of life has requested that we do it. It’s important to recognize this: God is helping us to grow strong spiritually because the spirit connects us to Him and everlasting life. His promise is not bound to our time on this earth but to eternity. This makes his guidance, boundaries, and advice of ultimate importance and also stealthily effective as a way to salvation.
Turning to the gospel reading, we hear the famous calling of Matthew (Levi), the tax collector. The force of the excerpt is on Christ’s simple yet powerful “Follow me” and his interaction with the Pharisees at dinner. But let’s not overlook Levi here, who like Peter, James and John dropping their nets, responds with equivalent certitude: “And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house.” We can speculate in many directions about Levi’s motives (perhaps he saw a way out of his hateful profession?) or about his emotional state (perhaps he wanted to rise in status as a close follower of this new cult figure?) but I think all of this misses the point. A more profitable reflection might be upon that moment of connection, when God and man see each other, God holds out His hand, and man takes it without hesitation. Did Jesus choose Levi because He knew that something in him was ready to say yes? Or is it simply impossible for those directly approached by Christ to say no — the pull of the divine being so irresistible? Maybe the call and response is so amazing because that moment is always unique for every human being; free will is a potential monkey wrench, receptivity to God is variable with time of life, even time of day. Perhaps the gospel writers describe the details of the call and response of the Apostles so plainly because the sheer fact of following Christ — the Way — is perfect and true on its own. It must be recorded and repeated. Whether fisherman, prostitute, tax collector, or rabbi, this is the very call and response that God speaks of through Isaiah. Deny yourself and delight in the Lord.
And in the same way that Christ speaks of the relationship between God and man in yesterday’s gospel reading — “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” — He answers the peevish question from the Pharisees with a truth about who God is. He responds, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” We will hear Him expand on this truth in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are a righteous person, a son who has obeyed his father, then you already have the kingdom at your fingertips. You are with God and if you realize this and delight in it (instead of being there only out of moral obedience), then you are fulfilled. In fact, you will be so filled with the Father’s love that you, too, want to rescue the sinners. The Pharisees’ question is ultimately one about justice: isn’t it unjust that we who have obeyed God should eat on our own while the Messiah feasts with sinners? Jesus’s response is the re-orientation of our concept of justice that we need as humans. It starts with realizing who God is: the Alpha and Omega with whom all creation reaches its fullness. Being on the Way to God or in His Presence means sharing in that fullness of Being. As one’s outlook becomes infused with God’s Being, questions of justice like the Pharisees’ become very small minded. The only justice is that everyone has a chance to join God and the fullness of being in the Kingdom. If any of us poor, sinning people is given access to God, then let us all have access! God’s love is all about this: it is all-encompassing, ever forgiving. This love is the real principle for justice.
May we all exercise our spiritual muscle in denying ourselves this Lent so we can delight in the Lord.