22nd March: Daniel 3.25,34-43; Psalm 24; Matthew 18.21-35
The story of three young men saved within a fiery furnace is for good reason one of the favourite stories of the Bible. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are the Babylonian names their captors gave to three Jewish boys, whose Hebrew names were Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. [Daniel 1.7] The prayer Azariah (Abednego) offers in the furnace, our first lesson at mass today, makes the siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent captivity of most of its people [cf II Kings 24.1-21] an act not of wicked pagans but God’s punishment of his people’s sins.
By making captive Israel not the hapless pawns of a foreign power but sinners in the hands of a just God the prophets gave hope to their countrymen. God, they reminded one another, ‘hates nothing that he has made’. [Wisdom 11.24] The time of Israel’s punishment would come to an end. [Isaiah 40.1-2] No longer could they go to the Temple to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins [Leviticus 16.-18] but even in their place of exile they could offer the sacrifice of their own contrition [Psalm 50(51).17-19] which would win the favour of a gentle and merciful God.