Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
I find no fault with your sacrifices,
your offerings are always before me.
I do not ask more bullocks from your farms,
nor goats from among your herds. (R./)
But how can you recite my commandments
and take my covenant on your lips,
you who despise my law
and throw my words to the winds. (R./)
You do this, and should I 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. (R./)
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves ill be exalted."
The Biblical phrase “orphans and widows” refers by extension to all the helpless and needy people of the world. Isaiah mentions them after a stern warning that to neglect the poor incurs this response from God: “I close my eyes to you . . . I will not listen.” We can imagine the prophet raising his voice in the next phrase: “Wash yourselves clean!” This “washing” of the spirit is done by caring for people in need.
This is a hard teaching, for we have all ignored beggars in our streets and driven comfortably past slums where we would not live ourselves; and how often have we wasted food at times when some were sleeping hungry in the streets. Somehow Lent invites us: “Come now, let us set things right!” It offers us a new start. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may be as white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.” A new integrity is offered to us here and now.
“But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you..” We may wonder why Isaiah’s message of forgiveness and new life ends on such a warning note. Charity and integrity are a matter of life and death, and Lent calls us to meditate seriously about such things.
In the Gospel, Jesus blames the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on the shoulders of ordinary people. By contrast, his own invitation was, “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest.” Most of us have to cope with burdens of one kind or another as we go through life. Some burdens are necessary and unavoidable; they are the burdens of love, from having responsibility for others. Jesus opposes any forcing of needless burdens on others. We can all be guilty of this tendency, whether from a dominant temperament or by insisting that things must be done in our own way.
We are meant to make life less burdensome for the people around us and help them in any way we can. This would be in the spirit of the one who said, “Come to me all you who are overburdened and I will give you rest.” The divine mercy helps us to shoulder our own burdens, and help others to carry theirs. As St Paul knew from personal experience, God makes up for our weakness, and in times of crisis we can turn to him for strength.