Tuesday of Week 3 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Zephaniah 3:1-2, 9-13

Zephaniah reflects a time early in the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC), before his reforms were fully developed. Zephaniah is very aware of the corruption and injustice prevalent in the Judah of his day. There is a harsh message of judgement, but it is not without a promise and hope, which is reflected in today’s reading. This promise seems to have rested with a just remnant of Israel, who were among the humble, and not including the corrupt and disobedient leaders with whom Zephaniah must have been closely familiar, coming as he did from the ruling class.

The reading begins on an ominous note of warning to an unnamed city. It is generally agreed that it is Jerusalem, seen as representing the whole of Israel. Officials, judges, prophets and priests are all seen as corrupt and continuing to ignore the warnings they have received from God.

But, change is on the way when the people are given “lips that are clean”, and will begin to serve the Lord faithfully. The promise of “pure speech” is a symbol of forgiveness. It also points to a reversal of the curse of Babel, and anticipates Pentecost, when all will speak with the same voice and proclaim the same message (see Isa 6:5-7; Gen 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-11). The nations will be converted and there will be a faithful remnant left in Israel. All will obey the same Lord and God.

On that day there will be a humble and lowly remnant of Israel. This image of a simple and modest people, devoid of all arrogance and pride, has been described as one of the most perfect descriptions of the ‘spirit of poverty’ in the Old Testament. Earlier (in Zeph 2:3), the prophet had said:

Seek Yahweh all you humble [anawim] of the earth who obey his commands. Seek uprightness, seek humility: you may perhaps find shelter on the day of God’s anger.

The anawim, the lowly in this world, play a significant role in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments (see Matt 18:1-7). The prophets are aware that it is the poor who are usually the oppressed. They continually call for justice for the weak and lowly and for those in need. In short, the anawim are those Israelites who submit, not passively but actively, to the will of God. Later, the word anaw or ani will come to represent those who opt to lead lives of material simplicity for the sake of others. We see God himself doing this in the person of the baby Jesus, born in the midst of poverty and deprivation. It is the ideal (not always lived out!) of religious communities through their ‘vow of poverty’.

It is not mainly a question of being economically poor, because where poverty indicates being deprived of what is needed for a life of dignity, it is something to be removed. It is rather the attitude of those who voluntarily have little and are open to receive everything from God. The word ‘poverty’ formerly implied failure. But now, it will be the condition needed to seek God. After that time, the “poor of the Lord” will mean all those in Israel who hope to find God. The Gospel, especially the Gospel of Luke, will proclaim the happiness of the poor (see Luke 6:20). With this ‘poverty’, there necessarily goes a high level of integrity. “They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies.”

The overall message of both readings today is that it is never too late to start listening to God, and to follow Jesus in his life of simplicity and dedication to the well-being of others.

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