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.
Then 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 orphan and widow stand for all the helpless and needy people of the world. Isaiah mentions them after a stern and fearsome passage, omitted in today's liturgy. To neglect the poor while spreading out one's hands in prayer draws from God the terrifying response: "I close my eyes to you ...I will not listen." In fact, being heedless of the poor, God declares, makes "your hands ...full of blood!" The prophet must have shouted out the next phrase. "Wash yourselves clean!" And the way to do this, he says, is by helping the orphan and widow.
This is a hard teaching, for we have all passed by beggars without giving alms; we have all driven comfortably past slums where we would hate to live ourselves; we have wasted food in the same city where some were sleeping hungry in the streets. And now Lent somehow invites us: "Come now, let us set things right!" God offers us the possibility of total conversion. "Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool." All this integrity can only happen "if you are willing and obey." "But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." We may question if Isaiah's consoling message of forgiveness and new life should end on such a terrifying note. Charity and integrity are a matter of life or death, and Lent calls us to think about such things.
Jesus criticises the Pharisees for laying heavy burdens on people's shoulders. In contrast, his own invitation was, "Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest." His work consisted in easing off unnecessary loads from people's shoulders rather than laying extra burdens on them. Most of us have to deal with burdens of one kind or another as we go through life. Some burdens are necessary and unavoidable; they are the burdens of love, the burdens that come to us from giving ourselves to others in one way or another. Jesus is critical of those who impose unnecessary burdens on others. We can all be guilty of doing that from time to time. Rather than imposing unnecessary burdens on others, our calling is to help carry each other's burdens, to make life less burdensome for each other. In doing that we will be acting in the spirit of the one who said, "Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest." The Lord helps us all to carry our burdens, both the necessary and inevitable ones and the unnecessary ones. As St Paul knew from personal experience, he is strength in our weakness, and in times of weakness we can turn to him for strength.