13 Dec. Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Advent
Zephaniah 3:1ff. A vision of his people’s future conversion: the humble shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord.
Matthew 21:28ff. The short parable about two sons: one refuses but obeys; the other agrees but disobeys.
God’s Holy “Remnant”
It seems that one of the most difficult feelings to cast off is a sense of shame. People will never allow tax collectors and prostitutes – the male and female occupations, considered to be the most shameful in Palestine during the days of Jesus – ever to forget that they were tax collectors and prostitutes.
Long before, in the days of the prophet Zephaniah, all Israel was reduced to such a condition. The prophet cried out: “Woe to the city, rebellious and polluted, to the tyrannical city!” Nonetheless, he projected a vision of hope. Foreign nations would call upon the name of the Lord, and Israel was consoled with these words: “You need not be ashamed of all your deeds, your rebellious actions against me. … I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly.”
Only God can fully remove shame and bring his people back to the dignity of their first creation. This transformation will happen at a time when foreign nations will “call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one accord.” The removal of shame, such a monumental task that human beings seldom if ever allow it to happen, takes place in a world setting. The prophet implies that the necessary ingredients for this change do not come from sophisticated knowledge of the Mosaic law nor from careful following of the temple rubrics. In fact, Israel had been taking pride in her legal and ceremonial behavior. She felt so confident that “she hears no voice, accepts no correction.”
The prophet reaches beneath religion to the deep, natural level of human existence, where men and women exist simply as God’s creatures. Every person begins in the womb of his mother simply as God’s creature. Flesh and blood we share with everyone else whether this other person is religious or not. Our human nature with its common sense and common decency asks that shame be removed. This newly found human dignity also implies what is again one of the basic qualities of God’s creation. As infants we are “a people humble and lowly,” and such smallness and poverty attract God’s tender delight and strong compassion. He says about this lowly remnant:
They shall do no wrong and speak no lies;
Nor shall there be found in their mouths
a deceitful tongue.
Jesus faced up to this demanding ministry of reconciling tax collectors and prostitutes, shameful people if there ever were any in the estimation of religious authority at that time. To do so, he gave a simple example of a man with two sons. The first son put on a pious appearance and always said and did the right thing, or at least made people think that he did! The comparison with religious and civil authorities was far too evident to need further elaboration. The other son was mischievous, disobedient, saucy, self-willed; he always replied first with a quick “No!” before he had time to think. He was like the tax collectors and the prostitutes who made no show of religion at all. And yet they silently repented and humbly listened to John the Baptist. John spoke to them as people whose shame could be lifted and whose human dignity still resided within them and could be revived.
Jesus asks the question of us: do we allow people to regain their human dignity or do we continually bring up their shameful past? Jesus, born as an infant, recalls our basic human quality as created by God. This simple fact not only cries out for tenderness and honesty but also for the mercy by which we give each person a chance to be truly who he is, as innocent as God’s creation will always be. We must not fool ourselves, to return from shame to our full human dignity will never be easy. We will suffer the same slur as did Jesus, “a friend of tax collectors and prostitutes.” Jesus took the words as a compliment, but suffered for it. We will suffer too by simply allowing people, once sinful, again to be converted to their human goodness, to be our friends and to “call upon the name of the Lord.”
Lord, enable me also to hear the same cry of the poor, to be one with them and radiant with their joy. Then my shame too will be taken away.
First Reading: Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13
Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God. At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, my scattered ones, shall bring my offering. On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.
For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.
Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.