Today’s readings remind us that Our Lord is not an agent of the Internal Revenue Service and we shouldn’t treat him like one. In today’s First Reading Israel is treating the Lord like the IRS: fasting is all they think they owe, so, like taxes, they settle for fasting as their civic and religious duty and want nothing to do with the “tax collector,” waiting for a refund. The Lord reminds them today that if they really want to please him it would mean much more that they treat others fairly and justly (including him). He is criticizing those who just fast in order to appease him, but want nothing to do with him or others in any meaningful way.
Lent is characterized by some exterior practices and customs: we place the ashes on our head, celebrate the liturgy with colors symbolizing suffering and penitence, and look for the Lenten Friday fish specials. However, these practices must come from the heart; they are a way to measure whether we’re holding up all three Lenten “fronts”–prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–which we should also work on throughout the year. If we’re skipping the sweets, are we also making sure that we’re not losing our patience with others? If we’re focusing on prayer, are we also not neglecting the charity we owe to others, and practicing healthy spiritual self-mastery? If we’re dedicating some more time to others and their needs, are we also making time for God? All three fronts are important; in Lent we usually focus on one and make an extra effort, but we should also be sure to maintain our usual effort on the other fronts as well.
The disciples of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel are focusing on fasting and penitence, just as they were taught, but they don’t understand why Our Lord is not exacting the same thing from his disciples, especially considering that John has been saying that Jesus is “the One.” They’re not Our Lord’s disciples yet; his disciples are being initiated into the simple prayer of being with him, and the charity that comes with following him and helping him to serve others. Jesus doesn’t mince words: his disciples will also have their moments of fasting, but for now they are focusing on prayer and charity. As the Holy Week liturgies will remind us, they’ll have plenty of fasting and self-denial soon enough.
Lent is just three days underway. We may not be feeling the pinch yet of our Lenten resolutions, but let’s take stock today of how we’re doing on all three fronts.
Readings: Isaiah 58:1–9a; Psalm 51:3–6ab, 18–19; Matthew 9:14–15. See also 13th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday.