Summary: Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask “who was the good boy?” Because the answer to that is “neither one.”
Monday of 3rd Week in Advent
There are just two more days in the first part of Advent, the time in which we prepare for the return of Our Lord in glory. On the seventeenth, we enter into the second phase, the novena of preparation for the Nativity celebration. And we begin with the prophet Zephaniah, one of the minor prophets connected with Advent, and what can only be described as an apocalypse. The core of this reading has been omitted in our lectionary, but we can’t avoid commenting on it, or reflecting on it.
Zephaniah practically screams at the leaders of Israel of his day. But remember that the Book of Zephaniah begins with God’s promise, “I will completely sweep away all things from the earth.” No mealy-mouthed “be good” from this prophet. He tells the officials that they are lions with bloody mouths from tearing into the poor. He tells the judges that they are wolves that devour the people in their courts, and the prophets and priests that they are wanton and violent. Then he reminds them that the Lord is everything they are not, righteous, just, always doing what is good for His people. The Hebrews were taken out of Egypt so that they would give right worship, pure praise to the One True God, and make their way of life so just and attractive that all nations would come to Jerusalem and worship rightly and live rightly. But, instead, they adopted the practices of the nations. In Zephaniah’s time, that was the empire of Assyria, who worshiped the sun, moon and stars.
So what God would do is gather them all together, Israel and all the nations together, and pour out his wrath so that everyone is purified by what today we know as the fire of His love. Then He will reverse the results of the Tower of Babel and make peoples’ speech pure and focused on loving and serving the Lord. Then pride will be turned into humility and arrogance into meekness, by the saving action of the Lord. Then their lives would be like God’s, doing no wrong, telling no lies, and worshiping in truth. So the bad news is, by God’s power, turned into good news, salvation. In time, Jesus came to enable that conversion to happen in the lives of billions of humans, and, in the end, He will return in glory to finish the task, separate sheep from goats, and celebrate with all the faithful in His new heavens and new earth.
Last week, we heard Jesus fussing at the scribes and Pharisees. He used a cute little parable about children playing in the marketplace. No matter what tune the kids played, the listeners were critical. Well, John the Baptist came and was an ascetic. The Jewish leaders called him a crackpot, possessed by a demon. Then Jesus came and enjoyed a good meal with some good wine, and they called Him a drunk and glutton who consorted with bad people. The prophets, even the Son of God, just couldn’t crack the stony hearts of the hypocrites.
But the prostitutes and tax collectors, the refuse of society that the hypocrites wouldn’t go near–they responded to the call of Jesus. Here the parable is very piercing. The dutiful son gets a job from his dad and says, “right away, Dad” and then goes off and spends the afternoon playing a video game. No conscience, but he expects he’ll still be the dad’s favorite anyway. It’s a staple of dramatic TV series, isn’t it?
But then the wastrel, the son who always dragged his feet and told dad, “no,” he gets afflicted by his conscience and goes out to do the job he was instructed to do. Now notice that Jesus doesn’t ask “who was the good boy?” Because the answer to that is “neither one.” Isn’t that what every parent says when their kid is caught stealing, or vandalizing, or bullying? “But he’s really a good boy.” Let’s get real. St. Paul was right, and still is: “all have sinned and fallen short.” All of us are sinners, but hopefully are acting like we want to become saints. In the days of Jesus, it was the riffraff who listened to Jesus, learned His law of love, accepted baptism after repentance and used the grace of Christ to lead better lives. They lived lives of repentance and good works because of that encounter with Jesus. Here as the first days of Advent come to a close, and we are reminded of our ultimate end, let’s once more repent of our follies and ask Jesus for the forgiveness and healing that we need, so that we can go out and tell of the good news to a world so very hungry for that good news.