Tuesday in the 3rd Week of Advent: Zephaniah 3:1-2. 9-13, Matthew 21:28-32.
People who know me would probably say I’m famously bad at taking correction. It’s something I’ve tried to work on for a long, long time. I’m still not great at it. I’m not sure how my mother and father ever dealt with such a pig-headed son, but thankfully they had 7 other kids to distract them from me. When I consider why it’s so hard to take correction, a few things come to mind: embarrassment, indignation, pride, defensiveness, inability to separate a critique of an action from critique of who I fundamentally am. In all of these things is a single thread: putting myself first.
Today’s readings speak loudly to people like me. Zephaniah laments the pig-headedness of the Jews in Judah, but the Lord promises a great humbling after which peace will come. Jesus re-frames this lesson as an internal conversion of heart, although the punishment/salvation message remains. Through both, I can see how accepting correction is a very necessary ingredient for being taken into the Kingdom.
The prophet Zephaniah lived in Judah under King Josiah (640-609 BC), who reigned until 13 years before the nation’s defeat by the Babylonians. The Judeans had seen the defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians 100 years prior, and yet continued to be faithless to God. This is what Zephaniah laments — he tries to get them to return to the Lord and foresees their great humbling during the Babylonian Captivity. The crown jewel of Judah is Jerusalem, which stands as both beacon and representative of the Jewish people, and it is about Jerusalem that today’s reading speaks: “Woe to the city, rebellious and polluted, to the tyrannical city! She hears no voice, accepts no correction; In the LORD she has not trusted, to her God she has not drawn near.” Here is where scripture speaks to me — I can see myself in this refusal to hear other voices and accepting no correction. The very next sentence contextualizes this failing quite well; this type of behavior belies a distance from God and a lack of trust in Him. That’s a bit of a blow. Just when I think it’s all about me, even then it’s really about God! This is the irony of pride: the self-absorbed person cannot even be pitied (something they’d deserve yet despise) because the real offense is not to themselves but to God. As we reflected last Friday in The Lukewarm and the Cynical, “Sin is not only a foolishness and vileness, but considered in relation to God it is also the blackest ingratitude, the greatest injustice, and the gravest outrage” (Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, Knowing the Love of God, 21). Once again: our hearts and souls rightly belong to God, and closing them off from Him is unjust and a great offense.
What does God do about this offense? Zephaniah tells us, “For then I will change and purify the lips of the peoples … remove from your midst the proud braggarts, And you shall no longer exalt yourself.” Need we say it once more (of course!)? God is love! And that purifying love removes pride. In the saga of the Jewish people, this purification is seen in the fall of Jerusalem and Babylonian Captivity. They do not perish (because God loves them). In fact, many historians claim that the Jews who returned to the Holy Land after the Babylonian Captivity were much more serious observers of God’s law than those before this penitential time.¹ God promises this very thing to Zephaniah: ” I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, Who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD: the remnant of Israel. They shall do no wrong and speak no lies; Nor shall there be found in their mouths a deceitful tongue; They shall pasture and couch their flocks with none to disturb them.” What a testament to His love that He does not simply destroy evil-doers, but provides opportunities for penitence and conversion.
And what happens in large scale in the Old Testament Jesus brings to us on an individual level. It’s not to say that personal penitence and conversion were not just as important before Christ, but in the scope of salvation history, it was God’s plan to have the revelation of His Son convey to us in a new and personal way the need for individual conversions of heart.
Jesus teaches us via the parable of the two sons. Of the one who has obeyed the will of his father, He says, “The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went.” The short parable is clear in what happens: an immediate refusal, then a conversion of heart followed by right action. Is this not the archetype for so many of us? I was blessed to have been brought up in a Catholic family and heard this parable from a very early age. I thought of it often growing up, mostly because my hotheaded inability to take correction put me in that immediate refusal mode. But the grace afforded me by my baptism into the Church and ongoing formation as a Catholic blew on that little ember of a developing conscience and I slowly applied moral sense to my life. My (often sheepish) conversion to do what I was asked was followed by a (usually) quiet compliance and then an (undoubtedly) crowing about having done it. Ahh, immaturity, will you ever leave me?
All humor aside, this lesson is absolutely fundamental to the Christian life. Jesus explains to the chief priests and elders — with what we might imagine to be a breathless, earnest desire to save them — “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” How could these reviled, impure people enter the Kingdom ahead of those who are considered the crème-de-la-crème of Jewish society? Jesus explains that they believe John that Jesus is the Messiah, whereas these chief priests and elders remain skeptical. What’s more, the parable explains that the sin is ameliorated by a conversion of heart and right action. More simply: sinners are doing God’s will while the chief priests and elders, although they overtly say they will obey God, are not.
And think of the context here. This is chapter 21 in the gospel according to Matthew. It opens with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem followed by his throwing the money changers out of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. Then we have yesterday’s reading where the chief priests and scribes can’t respond in truth to His question about John, followed by this parable and then the parable of the wicked tenants. This is a sequence of Christ’s arrival and sweeping the selfish pride out of Jerusalem. We hear how the Lord tells Zephaniah “I remove from your midst the proud braggarts, And you shall no longer exalt yourself,” and we see Jesus fulfill this promise. This is a time of winnowing, separating the chaff from the wheat, and a time of discernment, to understand what is in the hearts of the people. Jesus continues to heal the blind and lame in this chapter (Mt 21:14) — He could not possibly withhold His very nature of love and healing — but His message includes a very serious warning as He tells the chief priests and elders, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Mt 21:43). We can never forget that Christ is simultaneously the generous healer and the bringer of the end of time; the innocent lamb and the judge who divides the goats and the sheep. Christ, outside of time, tells us simultaneously of our past, present, and future, but never withholds the living water that flows from Him and His wounds.
And we can understand how this is an Advent message. We are all the son who refuses. With every sin we refuse God and shut our hearts to him. With the simplest choice to exit a conversation with someone who wants to talk because we’re bored, tired, or would rather be doing something else, we have put ourselves first and not sublimated ourselves to the will of the Father. The Good News is that we can convert our hearts and go do God’s will. Jesus promises us the Kingdom; He never withholds it. We simply have to have that real, ongoing, continual conversion of heart — perhaps learn to accept correction — and start producing the fruits of the kingdom. We are waiting for that glorious King to be born, and we have these weeks to prepare the way in our hearts.
¹ Barton, George A. “Influence of the Babylonian Exile on the Religion of Israel.” The Biblical World, vol. 37, no. 6, 1911, pp. 369–378. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3141403.