Today’s first reading, from the book of Joel, reflects the attitude of a people somewhat tentative in their relationship to God:
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God,
For he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind a blessing,
Grain offering and libation
for the LORD, your God.
“(The Lord) is gracious and merciful... relenting in punishment,” the text declares. But then: “Perhaps he will again relent.” The reading states the merciful qualities of God as a fact, but then isn’t so certain that these qualities will lead to a definite action on God’s part. This is a wise distinction, which begs the question: How often do you take God’s mercy for granted?
Two things link this reading to today’s Ash Wednesday Gospel. First, “Rend your hearts, not your garments” in Joel parallels with Jesus’ teachings against hypocrisy in Matthew: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” In other words, the change must occur from within, and not just be show on the outside.
Second, the first reading suggests fasting and offerings to appease the Lord, while in the Gospel, Jesus gives more practical, clear-cut examples about behavior and intention – including fasting – that are likely to result in the Lord’s mercy.
Both readings remind us that our relationship with God is a two-way street. God may be love, God may be mercy, God may be every good and virtuous quality that mere humans can only ever scratch the bottom of. But this doesn’t mean we can take all of it for granted. We must strive to reach the even the smallest fiber on the thread of the hem of our Lord, and not expect the Lord to reach down and pick us up every time we fail. After all, didn’t God the Father already send his Son to die to save us? What sort of gratitude would it be for this priceless gift, to take salvation for granted?