Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2019 – Year A
Readings: Is 11:1-10 / Ps 72 / Rom 15:4-9 / Mt 3:1-12
by Father Louis Benoit, Guest Celebrant
We heard in the gospel about John the Baptist in the desert – wearing weird clothes and eating weird food. He’s attracting quite a crowd, calling people to repent. His baptism is a baptism of repentance. Repentance basically means to make a 180-degree turn – to turn away from a sinful life to a life of the Lord.
Of course, for Jesus to be born in our hearts, we have to repent. I suggest that repentance is not a once-and-for-all thing: one time you’re here and then suddenly you’ve done a 180. It’s a life-long process. We have to spend a life turning away from sin and evil and turning toward what Jesus wants for us. We have to keep working on it.
While John is preaching the baptism of repentance, the scribes and Pharisees come out. These are the religious leaders. John called them a “brood of vipers.” Why would he do that?
Well, the scribes were very rigid fundamentalists. They believed that the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, were the only law. If it’s not in the Torah, it’s not the law. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, for example, because that comes later in the Old Testament; it’s not in the Torah – the first five books. They were very rigid people.
The Pharisees were a much larger group. They believed in the whole of the Old Testament and were more open. They were sticklers for the law. They had more than two hundred laws they followed, and they were faithful followers of the law.
But the thing about it is that neither of the groups looked toward the lower class of people. They were like the damned masses: they didn’t follow the laws. They didn’t know all 200+ precepts of the law. Thus they were written off. But for John they were not written off.
This lower class of people in Jesus’ day had a very rough life. They were just scraping by, and what little they had was taxed to death by the Romans and by the Jewish people. They really had it bad. So somebody calling them to a new life was something different, and they had an excited response to someone like John. They were looking for a savior; they were looking for a messiah; they were looking to be relieved from where they were.
What is very relevant here is that this parallels life today. They had the scribes. Well, today you have people that are very rigid; Their beliefs are the only way and there can be no other. They believe they have the Truth. Well, I’m sorry, but nobody has the whole Truth. But they think they do, and, if you don’t believe as they do, you’re on the outside. They have a very fundamentalist way of looking at things. And they’re perfectionists. Have you ever heard the definition of a perfectionist? A perfectionist is one who takes great pains and gives them to others. We have these people in the church: “This is the way it is,” and you cannot disagree with them. Some of them even condemn the pope.
As for the Pharisees, well, we have people who have a much broader interpretation of the laws, can see things in a broader light, and realize there are a lot of rules and regulations.
But the problem is neither the scribes nor the Pharisees took care of the little people. What about the damned masses?
I think we can be like the Pharisees: We believe various things about our religion; we’re open to new ways of seeing things. But we don’t take care of the little people. We’re missing them. John criticized the Pharisees for not taking care of others. We have to see that we are called to something deeper and something better for Jesus to be born in us. The charitable acts we do as a congregation are a necessary part of who we are. As a congregation, if you’re not reaching beyond yourself, I don’t know why you’re here.
Thank goodness if you do some charitable works beyond yourself. For example, most of the second collections are charitable works – works that are done here in the community. And you should have those as a community. They are an essential part of who you are. You should also individually be reaching out in love and compassion to others, as John is criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for not doing. As you reach out to others as a community and as individuals, then Christ can be born in your heart. Then Christmas is not just the celebration of Jesus’ birth; it is also the celebration of Jesus’ being born in our hearts.
To be honest, if you look at the scribes and Pharisees and what they were doing and apply this to our modern day, most of us probably have a foot in both worlds. There are times when we act like the scribes and Pharisees, and times when we do things to take care of others. As I said about the repentance, it’s a process. We should be doing more and more reaching out in love and service, and less and less keeping it all to ourselves. It’s a life-long process of becoming what we should be in God’s presence. Repentance is not a once-and-for-all thing; it’s a process. None of us is perfect, but we can get more perfect as time goes on. We can get more open to sharing Jesus’ presence as life goes on.
As we’re preparing for the birth of Jesus, realize that, in our self-giving, we’re preparing for the birth of Jesus in our own hearts and in the world around us.