The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass while the headline is meant to keep my thinking real:
Zephaniah 3:1-2,9-13 ©
Trouble is coming to the rebellious, the defiled,
the tyrannical city!
She would never listen to the call,
would never learn the lesson;
she has never trusted in the Lord,
never drawn near to her God.
Yes, I will then give the peoples lips that are clean,
so that all may invoke the name of the Lord
and serve him under the same yoke.
From beyond the banks of the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants
will bring me offerings.
When that day comes
you need feel no shame for all the misdeeds
you have committed against me,
for I will remove your proud boasters
from your midst;
and you will cease to strut
on my holy mountain.
In your midst I will leave
a humble and lowly people,
and those who are left in Israel will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.
They will do no wrong,
will tell no lies;
and the perjured tongue will no longer
be found in their mouths.
But they will be able to graze and rest
with no one to disturb them.
The prophet Zephaniah lived towards the end of the 7th century BCE. His prophecies are directed mainly at the rulers and citizens of Jerusalem, whom he describes as complacent, arrogant, irrreligious and unjust. Even the guardians of faith, the prophets and priests, do not escape his withering scorn. The prophet envisages that Jerusalem will be sacked by foreign troops and its leading citizens carted off to exile, which is in fact what happened in 586 BCE. For the prophet however this is a beginning rather than an end. Once the arrogant upper class have been removed the poor, modest people left behind will be able to express their faith in God and his justice, and will receive his blessing.
In historical fact the fate of those left behind in Jerusalem by the Babylonians is undocumented and unknown, and we hear of them only in the perspective of those who eventually returned from exile in 538 BCE.
My own view of the Hebrew prophets was formed in in the 1960’s when these ferocious representatives of Israel’s God seemed ideal social critics. More lately, faced with Islamic Imams and Tea Party preachers voicing their vision of justice, I have begun to wonder just a little about my former heroes. Were they as careless about facts as their modern counterparts? Was their violent language simply metaphorical or did they welcome real violence? Were they expressing divine anger or their own? And most importantly were they merely engaged in a fundamentalist rebellion against the modernity of their times?
I don’t know enough to answer these questions, and I still respond to the sort of justice proclaimed in this passage, but even here there’s something about Zepahaniah’s lip-smacking satisfaction at God’s punishment that worries me. That, plus his certainty that through all his denunciations, it is the Lord who is speaking.
Matthew 21:28-32 ©
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’
This is one of those stories that explains Jesus’ unpopularity with the religious leaders of his people. He smacks them in the face with prostitutes and tax-collectors. These, the dregs of Jewish society, both of them suspect because of their collaboration with Romans, had trusted John and were now flocking to Jesus. Jesus’ sober recognition of the appeal of God’s way to people who know their faults, and its lack of appeal to those who don’t, is very convincing. His quiet, almost humorous critique of those who merely talk obedience to God remains deadly to all religious pretenders, including me.