God asks that we be compassionate, just

  • December 4, 2009
Third Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 13 (Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)

Prophets seldom make pleasant company, and the prophecies of Zephaniah for the most part do not make for pleasant reading. Writing during the reign of Josiah in the seventh century BC, Zephaniah preached against idolatry and other forms of religious corruption. In his attempts to stir the people to moral and spiritual renewal, he prophesied doom and misery for Jerusalem as punishment. He even expanded his prophecy to include the rest of the world in the coming judgment called the “Day of the Lord.” In their eyes, these warnings and prophecies were fulfilled with the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC by the Babylonians.

There does not appear to be much reason to rejoice. But a vision of hope is provided: a time will come when Israel’s enemies will be vanquished and a purified faithful remnant will reign in peace with God in their midst. Destruction and suffering is not the end intended by God. We can pass through it to a new future. The vision is intended to instill hope and joy and lift the people above the negativity of their present experience.

The spectre of this “Day of the Lord” is still present in the New Testament where it is attached to the return of Jesus and the ensuing final judgment at the end of time. Again, it is used to frighten, and we would not be wrong in questioning whether this sort of imagery should be connected with Jesus. There cannot be much joy while so many suffer or are lost. 

Joy and gratitude are powerful agents of healing and renewal. Paul exhorts his community to rejoice in the Lord always. When their prayers are joined with a sense of joy and gratitude they are far more powerful — probably because joy and gratitude are signs that they are already close to God. Gratitude is more than a few mumbled words of thanks — it is a fundamental approach to life and a profound spirituality. It is difficult if not impossible to be selfish, fearful or angry while living in a state of joy and gratitude. No wonder it brings us a peace that surpasses all understanding.

The crowds were nervous — John the Baptist was calling for a baptism of repentance and hinting darkly at fiery visitations from God. So some of them asked the obvious question: What does God want us to do while we are waiting? And those who were asking the question had good reason to worry. Tax collectors and soldiers were not high on everyone’s list of favourite people for both were noted for venal extortion and violence. John’s answer is surprising. He does not insist that they find a whole new way of life — they can go on being tax collectors and soldiers. But they must do so in a just and fair manner. No extortion, no violence, no shakedowns. Just treat people correctly. Not very complicated, is it? As for the others, they are to share what they have with others. If they have more than they absolutely need, then they should give it to someone else. Again, it seems obvious and suspiciously simple — but that’s the point. God is not asking something elaborate and difficult from us — only that we treat others in the manner in which we would like to be treated.

Perhaps we need to rethink the fiery images and punishments — these represent the mindset of the ancient world. Jesus was puzzling and aggravating to many of His contemporaries precisely because He did not manifest the expected harshness and violence. But John’s admonitions are as real and valid today as they were then. Doing what is acceptable and pleasing to God includes our business dealings, work, family relationships, friendships and our awareness of the need of others. We can ask if our lifestyle, values and attitudes have a negative impact even on people far away or those we never meet. When we anticipate the coming of the Lord, it should be a time to examine our values and our conduct and to ensure that cruelty, violence, greed or indifference to the suffering of others does not find a foothold in our souls. God does not ask us to be perfect or superhuman, only compassionate and just people.