16th December. Tuesday of Advent, Week 3
1st Reading: Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13
The humble shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord.
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
The parable of the two sons reminds us that good actions speak louder than fine words.
“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.
God’s holy “remnant”
The most difficult thing to cast off is a bad reputation. People will never allow tax collectors and prostitutes – the two activities considered most shameful in Palestine during the days of Jesus – ever to forget their past. It seems that in the days of Zephaniah, all Israel was reduced to such a condition of shame. The prophet cried out against their faults, but also projected a vision of future hope. Foreigners would call on the name of the Lord, and Israel will need no longer be ashamed of past deeds, for “I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly.”
God can remove shame and bring us back to our original dignity. The removal of shame, such a monumental task that human beings seldom grant it to each other, is a gift from God. The prophet foresees “a people humble and lowly,” and paints a fine picture of what conversion can do: “They shall do no wrong and speak no lies.” The people of this “remnant” have the simple honesty and dignity of the child.
Jesus believed in the conversion of tax collectors and prostitutes, marginal people in the estimation of religion of Israel. To make this poin he gave a story of a man’s two sons. The first kept a pious appearance and always said and did the right thing. The other son was mischievous, disobedient, self-willed; he always replied first with a quick “No!” before taking time to think. He was like the tax collectors and the prostitutes who showed little interest in religion. 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. Many of them quietly changed their life and returned to God, determined to “do no wrong and speak no lies,” as the prophet Zephaniah advised. Yet the religious people who never felt shame were not open to conversion.
We value people who keep their word to us. We appreciate those who are true to the promises that they make to us. The Lord also appreciates our efforts to be true to the promises we make to him. In the parable in the gospel today, one of the sons of the father did not keep the promise he made to him. He promised to work in the vineyard but did not. He was not a man of his word. The other son went in the opposite direction; he initially said no but then thought better of it and did what was asked of him. We probably appreciate that quality in people too, the capacity to reflect on an initial decision and to have a change of mind, a change of heart, for the better. The Lord appreciates that same quality in us, the openness to a change of mind and heart for the better. When the Lord calls and we say no, he does not take that initial refusal as definitive, but is ready to wait on our change of mind and heart. The Lord gives us time to think better of our initial response to him. Having moved from a no to a yes, he looks to us to be faithful to our yes. He looks to us to keep our word, to allow our promise to him to shape what we do, how we live. MH