Today’s Gospel reading is full of dire warnings of the punishment that will be meted out to those who break the peace with their siblings, and, presumably, other family members and friends. One could easily focus entirely on this threatened punishment, and thereby lose the beginning words of the passage, words of Jesus to his disciples. He says: "I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven."
Jesus is quite explicit in calling for a righteousness that goes beyond the requirements of the law, and the law as interpreted by the teachers of the times. Jesus uses the example in the setting of the religious worship before God’s altar of sacrifice. Do not presume to offer your gift if your heart is turned away from your brother or sister. First go and be reconciled.
This is precisely the context in which we find ourselves at this beginning of Lent, 2012. In the history of the practice of Lenten penances, we can trace the evolution of Lenten penances from the public penance done by repentant sinners, excommunicated from the community because of the gravity of their sin, who hoped to be readmitted to communion with the church at the Easter liturgy.
The recognition that we are all sinners, coupled with the development of the sacrament of Penance as the ordinary means of being reconciled with the church, was an invitation for us all to enter into the season of Lent with penance on our minds.
We began to cultivate penitential practices, sacrifices, mortifications, that signaled our willingness to "make up for" our sins. Some of us would give up innocent pleasures, like sweets or television; others would abstain from not so innocent pleasures, like smoking or alcohol; others would undertake a spiritual duty that was not part of their usual practice, like a daily recitation of the rosary, or a daily Mass. As good as all of these practices have been and still are for a salutary Lenten experience, there is something missing.
Jesus introduces today’s Gospel passage by saying that our righteousness must be beyond the formal, public, accepted standards-those that are expressed in the common tradition of the faithful. Instead, Jesus cites the example of a truly personal recognition of one’s need to have a conversion of heart with regard to one’s neighbor.
What a wonderful invitation to each of us to leave our gift at the altar, to suspend our self-righteousness, and to pursue a true reconciliation with whomever: brothers, sister, friend, co-worker, boss, or the anonymous stranger whose eyes touch your conscience.
Leave the formality of your traditional Lenten penance at the church door, and first go and be reconciled with whomever is alienated from you. That will make of this Lenten experience a true preparation to celebrate the rebirth to new life that every follower of Christ receives from the Risen Lord.
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.