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Tuesday, third week of Lent

March 17, 2009

Blessed St. Patrick’s Day! (Look for his story in the “saints of Lent” category)

Lord, You call us to Your service
and continue Your saving work among us.
May Your love never abandon us.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Opening Prayer for today’s Mass)

Readings: Daniel 3:25, 34-43 (Azariah’s prayer for mercy in the fiery furnace)
Psalm 25: 4-9 “Remember Your mercies, Lord”
+Matthew 18:21-35 (forgive seventy times seven times)

Being master means taking on the debts of your servants–in a way that builds up the moral climate of your domain.

This is precisely what Azariah (better known as Abednego) and his two companions were doing in the fiery furnace. They were Israelites of royal and/or noble blood, young men without any defect, handsome, intelligent and wise, quick to learn and prudent in judgment (see Daniel 1:3-4). (In other words, they were exactly the sort of men you might expect to be full of themselves!) They were leaders among their own people, now carried off in defeat to Babylon. That in itself could’ve been enough to make them crumble. Why bother being noble & holy now? It’s too late…

Azariah, Hananiah & Mishael were made of sterner stuff than that. They took every opportunity to live up to their calling as Chosen People, even making a deal with the steward who provided their food to substitute vegetables for the idol-tainted meat that King Nebuchadnezzar had reserved for them. In turn, God gave them such wisdom and prudence that they excelled over all the other wise men of the kingdom and were appointed administrators over the province of Babylon. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the very things that win the blessings of God are often the same things that incite the persecution of men. Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael persisted in refusing to be contaminated by idol worship, even when this refusal was made illegal. Hence their stint in the fiery furnace.

This was their payment of the debt their people had incurred.

That’s the gist of today’s first reading. These three had gone out of their way to shun idol worship and to live holy lives. Their countrymen hadn’t. That’s why God had allowed Israel to be decimated by the Babylonians in the first place. The national moral debt had been racked up so high that God sold His firstborn (Israel–see Exodus 4:22) and all his family into slavery to pay it off. At the time, nobody so much as entertained the idea of repentance, of pleading for mercy.

Now times have changed. Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael are ready to pay the debt.

Normally, righteous rulers would’ve have atoned for national sin–paid this moral debt–by offering holocausts in the temple. With the temple in ruins and the Israelites in bondage in a foreign land, that was no longer possible. So Azariah and his companions offered themselves as holocausts. Hey, they’re in a fire already! Might as well! And God accepted their offering, using their witness to spur conversion even among the pagans who surrounded them.

Seen in this light, this story is quite similar to the one Jesus told to highlight the necessity of forgiveness. The master who wrote off his servant’s debt paid that debt, even as the three in the fiery furnace paid Israel’s moral debt at their own expense. He set the example of royal extravagance, an example Jesus was soon to fulfill by His own Passion and death in payment for our moral debt. This is the height of nobility, of leadership, which God raises for our inspiration.

He also lets us see the other side. What happens when this height is not attained? It’s not a pretty sight. The newly-freed servant shows his true colors as soon as he’s out of the master’s sight. Seizing a fellow servant who owed him a mere fraction of what he himself had owed, he seized him, throttled him, and demanded payment, turning a deaf ear to his debtor’s plea for mercy and having him thrown in prison. Clearly the forgiven servant cannot be trusted with mercy, never mind leadership! Rather than allow this merciless servant to persist in his sin (and allow the moral climate of his domain to be infested with this scandal), the master reinstated the debt–and its enslaving consequences–in full.

We’ve seen the heights of nobility, the depths of depravity. Jesus calls us to the heights, to the divine extravagance of seventy times seven. May we follow where His pierced feet have led.

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