Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It Is Not Those Who Just Say "Lord, Lord" Who Will Enter The Kingdom Of Heaven

Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent

Reading 1               Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13

Thus says the LORD:
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.

For then I will change and purify
the lips of the peoples,
That they all may call upon the name of the LORD,
to serve him with one accord;
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
and as far as the recesses of the North,
they shall bring me offerings.

On that day
You need not be ashamed
of all your deeds,
your rebellious actions against me;
For then will I remove from your midst
the proud braggarts,
And you shall no longer exalt yourself
on my holy mountain.
But 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.


Responsorial         Psalm 34

R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.

R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.

R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.

R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The LORD redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.

R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.


Gospel                   Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
"What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’
but afterwards he changed his mind and went.

The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?”
They answered, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the Kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

+++ +++ +++ +++

The prophecies of Zephaniah reflect a time early in the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC). Zephaniah is fully aware of the corruption and injustice that prevailed in the Kingdom of Judah in his day. He speaks a harsh message of judgment, but never without a promise of hope, as reflected in today’s reading. The reading begins with an ominous warning to an unnamed city, “rebellious and polluted … She hears no voice, and accepts no correction.” The prophet is speaking of Jerusalem, representing the whole people of Israel. Officials, judges, prophets and priests are described as corrupt leaders who persist in ignoring the warnings they have received from God.

But change is on the way, as we hear the promise: “I will change and purify the lips of the people, that all may call on the name of the Lord, and serve him with one accord.” The promise of “clean lips” is a symbol of forgiveness which at the same time points to a reversal of the curse of Babel, and which anticipates Pentecost, when all will speak with one voice and proclaim one message. (cf. Is 6:5-7; Gen 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-11). The gentile nations will be converted, and there will be a faithful remnant in the Land of Israel. Together, all will worship and obey the Lord, the Ruler of the universe, who is our God, and who is One.

On that day, there will be a simple and modest remnant of Israel. This image of a humble and lowly people, lacking arrogance and pride, has been described as one of the most perfect descriptions of the “spirit of poverty” in the Hebrew Scripture. Earlier (in Zeph. 2:3) the prophet has said: “Seek the Lord, you who live humbly on the earth and who obey his laws. Seek righteousness, and humility; then you may find shelter on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” The anawim, the humble and lowly of this world, play a significant role in the Scriptures, both Old and New (cf. Matt. 18:1-7). The prophets are well aware that it is the poor who are usually oppressed. They continually call for justice toward the weak, the lowly, and all those in need. In brief, the anawim are those children of Israel who submit not passively, but actively, to the will of God. Soon, we will see God himself doing this, in the person of the baby Jesus, born not in an inn, but in a manger. It is the ideal of religious communities through their “vow of poverty” (and we will leave any observation on how that ideal is lived out to the One who is capable of right judgment.

Poverty of spirit is not merely a question of being economically poor, since wherever poverty signifies deprival of what is necessary for life with dignity, such poverty needs to be removed. The spirit of poverty is rather the attitude of those who choose to live simply, and who are open to depend on God to supply them with the goods and blessings that they need. Once, the word “poverty” implied failure; now, it is a condition necessary to seek and find God, and the “poor of the Lord” means all those who hope to find God, and trust in him for sustenance.

True “poverty of spirit” necessarily implies a high degree of moral integrity. “The remnant of Israel shall do no wrong, and speak no lies; nor shall be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue.” The message, then, is that is never too late to start listening to God, and following Jesus in his life of simplicity and dedication to the well being of our neighbor. And who is my neighbor -- everyone who is not myself.


It might help to remind ourselves that today’s Gospel reading follows immediately upon yesterday’s, when the authority of Jesus was called into question. Today, Jesus offers his questioners—the religious leaders – a parable.

It is a tale about two sons, who are asked by their father to go and work in the vineyard. The first said, in reply, “I will not!” but later changed his mind and went. The other son replied, “Yes, sir!” but never went. The question is simple and straightforward: “Which of the two did his father’s will?”

Like most – if not all – parables, this one can be read on two levels. On the more general level, it is the common theme of the Gospel that deeds are more important that words. “It is not those who just say, ‘Lord, Lord’ who will enter the Kingdom . . .” What counts is to actually do what God calls us to do in our daily lives.

On a more particular level, the parable points to the situation that Jesus was facing. The religious leaders and many apparently religious people, who truly believe that they were following God’s ways, refused to heed the message of John the Baptist, and after him, that of Jesus himself. On the other hand, some who were looked upon as deeply sinful violators of the Law – tax collectors and prostitutes, responded to John’s call to repentance, changed their ways, and were baptized by him in the Jordan. Even then, the religious leaders made no move. When Jesus came, they refused to see the hand of God in what he did, while huge crowds of ordinary people gathered around him.

The religious leaders are like the son who said “Yes” to his father’s wishes. They heard the Lord’s word, but failed to follow it in their own lives. They were experts in the wording and interpretation of the Law, skillful at interpreting it in ways that placed heavy burdens on others, but that created enormous loopholes for themselves. The sinners, the tax collectors, the street walkers, who had constantly violated God’s Law, repented and changed their ways. There is no doubt as to which group was finding its way toward the Kingdom.

At this point, we must remind ourselves that our reflections on these readings is not to learn just how proud and arrogant the Chief Priests, the Elders, and the Teachers of the Law were, in Jesus’ day. Rather, they are intended to help us reflect on our own lives. Do we believe that because we are practicing Christians we are in a privileged and untouchable position? Do we spend much of our time praying in church, but after we get home, doing little in the way of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves? Do we find ourselves speaking in a critical or condescending way about people who are less devout that we are, or those who do not seem to meet our moral standards?

By our baptism and by our membership in the Church, we have said Yes to God. Yet, can we say that we always carry out what God is asking us to do? Perhaps, upon honest reflection, we might have to admit that we are not really in a position to sit in judgment on others. Given the gifts and graces we have received as Christians, we may not be doing very well compared with those who have never enjoyed the support of a Christian faith and a Christian environment. As Christmas approaches, let us be followers of the Lord in deeds as well as words.

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