Lenten Meditations for February 14-18, 2024.
ASH WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 14
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Each year, Christians have the opportunity to begin their Ash Wednesday with one of the most penetrating texts of the Bible: Isaiah 58. For me, this chapter of Isaiah is the literary equivalent of a powerful thunderstorm.
In this chapter, God probes the depth and authenticity of a people and a nation that consider themselves faithful and yet hardly care for the vulnerable in their midst. Such religious hypocrisy stinks to high heaven. From there, God bellows, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and you oppress all your workers” (Isaiah 58:3b).
Beginning the season of Lent with Isaiah 58 prepares us for wrestling with probing questions of depth and authenticity over the next forty days. We will explore what it means to be a faithful person in our day while knowing that the fast and sacrifice that God ultimately desires is to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6).
Psalm 103 or 103:8–14 | Joel 2:1–2,12–17 or Isaiah 58:1–12 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10 Matthew 6:1–6,16–21
How might the stirring message of Isaiah 58 serve as an invitation to a new way of experiencing the season of Lent?
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 15
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
On this Thursday after Ash Wednesday, Scripture offers us rich and complicated fare about life and death. Beginning with Deuteronomy 30:15, God describes two paths: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” In Psalm 1:3–4, we hear that those who follow the Law will be like “trees planted by streams of water,” whereas those who walk in the counsel of the wicked are “chaff which the wind blows away.
Such texts rely on strong contrasts. On one side is life and prosperity. On the other side, there is death and adversity. The starkness of the contrasts—their light and shadow—make the final reading even more remarkable because Jesus’ message of the cross complicates this polarized vision of reality.
Jesus, after all, relishes a provocative paradox.
In Luke 9:24, Jesus states, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Once again, Scripture presents life and death, but this time, gaining the whole world (power, prestige, etc.) is presented as the chaff that blows away, while the bewildering fact of a shameful crucifixion becomes the seed of new life.
Psalm 1 | Deuteronomy 30:15–20 | Luke 9:18–25
It is easy, at times, to miss the strange and paradoxical message of the cross. What does it mean to lose one’s life for God’s sake today?
How might the way of the cross be a beginning rather than an end?
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 16
Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are admonished for hanging out with the wrong crowd. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day criticize them for sitting with the much-loathed tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ response: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13).
I see two components in Jesus’ response. First, Jesus instructs us all to “go and learn.” Go and learn what it means to follow God in a complex and confusing world. Go and learn what it means to have one’s heart broken—and to know that you’ve broken others’ hearts, too. Go and learn what it means to have tried your best and yet completely failed. Go and learn the names and stories of people that you have judged to be sinners.
The second part occurs once one has “gone and learned.” Once that has been done, we can begin to grasp the teaching that mercy—not sacrifice—is the hallmark of a truly faithful person. Jesus insists that a compassionate approach to life is more pleasing to God than righteous indignation and judgment.
Psalm 51:1–10 | Isaiah 58:1–9a | Matthew 9:10–17
Humans judge. At some point, we have all categorized people into good and bad, pure and impure. How might we entertain curiosity—rather than judgment—toward those we have dismissed?
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 17
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Today, we find ourselves back at Isaiah 58, which serves for me as a summary of the entirety of my faith. After probing the depth and authenticity of performative faith, the prophet Isaiah lays out what God considers true religion. God states, “If you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:10).
Over the centuries, scholars and theologians have made many efforts to spiritualize such simple and direct language. In the second and third centuries, some Christians reinterpreted “the hungry” to mean “the spiritually hungry.” Whereas Scripture speaks directly about the hardships of the poor, “to remove the yoke” became a metaphor for any form of relief.
As beautiful as this spiritualizing tradition can be, it is also vital to consider hunger, poverty and hardship in concrete terms. During Lent, let us ask ourselves these important questions: Am I adding to the burdens of the poor, or am I helping to remove the yoke? Am I sharing my food with the hungry, or are my meals kept to a closely knit circle of family and friends? What is the connection between my life and the needs of the afflicted? Through Isaiah, God urges us to make this connection and to become more generous and satisfy the needs of the afflicted so that our light will shine in the darkness and our gloom will be like the noonday.
Psalm 86:1–11 | Isaiah 58:9b–14 | Luke 5:27–32
Giving regularly to Episcopal Relief & Development is one of the ways in which my spouse and I strive to “remove the yoke” from people experiencing poverty. We especially enjoy supporting Moments That Matter®, a program partnership of Episcopal Relief & Development, which helps children up to the age of 3 reach their fullest potential. What is one concrete way you can help “remove the yoke” today?
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT, FEBRUARY 18
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264
Psalm 25:1–9 | Genesis 9:8–17 | 1 Peter 3:18–22 | Mark 1:9–15