Simple justice, compassion is what the Lord asks of us

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  • December 5, 2012

Third Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 16 (Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)

Zephaniah the Prophet exercised his ministry during an interesting time — the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC). Josiah was a zealous and righteous king and the last hope for Israel before the darkness of destruction and exile overtook the nation in 587 BC. His reign was marked by reform, renewal and an attempt to eradicate idolatry from the land. In this sense, Zephaniah was more fortunate than Jeremiah, for at least there was a king who would listen.

Most of Zephaniah’s prophecy was grim and violent for the book begins with the prophecy that God will “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the Earth.” The rest of the book is a litany of destruction, violence, punishment and suffering — all of this, Zephaniah claimed, was going to befall Jerusalem for its sins. The dark and hideous scenario conjured up by Zephaniah was meant to shock the people into repentance and reform, and for a while it appeared that there might be hope but that was not to be.

Then why does the Book of Zephaniah end on such an upbeat and joyful note? Scholars believe that this was a prophetic utterance given towards or after the end of Israel’s exile. It celebrated their deliverance at the hand of God and the presence of God among them. They had paid their dues and would be going home. Prophetic utterances over a long period of time were often strung together in a collection under a prophet’s name and this book is no exception. All genuine prophecy came from God so the exact time it was given or the identity of the actual person mattered little to the people for it was all part of one continuous history. Joined to the earlier prophecy of doom, it carries an important message for us. We cannot really judge a difficult situation when we stand in its midst. What seems like the end of the world or a hopeless situation is but one point along a continuum of our journey to God. Pain and suffering is never God’s final answer, and a joyful redemption awaits all who keep hope and faith alive.

This message was echoed by Paul in his letter to the community at Philippi. Even in the midst of their struggle and persecution he exhorted them to rejoice in the Lord always and he repeated it for emphasis. Joy in the face of suffering confounds all of the negative forces that the world can throw at us. Paul went on to urge them to be gentle and kind in a way evident to all and to remain rooted in prayer. After all, the Lord was near (as the Lord always is) and that should give them a peace that defies human understanding.

Teacher, what should we do? People today ask the same agonizing question of the Lord as did those in the time of John the Baptist. People then and now often feel gripped and manipulated by economic, political, societal and even religious forces beyond their control. How does one remain right in God’s eyes when so many forces seem to rob people of their autonomy and freedom to respond? The answer of the Baptist was very simple: think of others and share what you have — food, clothing and everything else. These words are as valid and urgent today as they were then. Even the hated and despised tax collectors and soldiers asked the same question. Again he responded with disarming simplicity and compassion: do your job well but with mercy, justice and compassion. Do not extort money from people and be content with what you have. Both tax collectors and soldiers were notorious for “supplementing their income” through violence, extortion and selling protection.

There was no need for radical renunciation or extreme religious practices — simple justice and compassion would do just fine. All this anticipated something greater to come — Jesus the Messiah — and the gift of the Spirit of God that He would bring. Just as the mission of John the Baptist was to prepare the coming of the Lord by raising the spiritual consciousness of the people, our own compassionate response to others makes possible the greater work of God in us and on our behalf. Teacher, what should we do? The answer is simple and clear.

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