The Prophet Zephaniah is the 9th of the minor prophets, minor referring to the shortness of their writings not to the importance of their message. In 721 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel, comprising 10 of the 12 tribes, is utterly destroyed by the Assyrians. In 586, the remaining Kingdom of Judah will fall to the Babylonians. Zephaniah is writing roughly between 639 and 626 B.C. – a time of great foreboding and danger. The remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin stand alone, threatened by bands of Scythian invaders sweeping down from the North. Into this politically and militarily unstable situation in 639 B.C. the 8-year boy, Josiah ascends to the throne.
Zephaniah’s prophecies are heavy with the expectation of God’s judgment upon Judah. So, it’s somewhat surprising that he ends his writing with the joyful expectations we find in verses 14-20 of his final chapter; the whole book only numbers three chapters. Zephaniah makes no mention of a personal messiah. Nevertheless, he articulates a vision of hope and redemption –
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more. … I shall save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home ….gather you….make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.
This is the nature of hope, that the power of that for which we hope is already active within us.
Mark, Matthew, and Luke, each paint a portrait of John the Baptist as the last in the line of the great Hebrew prophets whose purpose is to announce the arrival of the messiah. However, it’s Luke, in particular, who gives us the most relatable picture of John. Mark makes no mention of the people who come to hear John, and Matthew, refers to them exclusively as Pharisees and Sadducees – always the Jewish bad guys for Matthew. In Luke those who come to hear John are described as the kind of people one might find at any modern crowdsourced event. Among the general populace of the hungry -some physically hungry, others spiritually ravenous – coming out to the wilderness to hear John, Luke includes some rather dubious groups as well.
Luke’s depiction of John the Baptist in the wilderness emphasizes the inclusivity of his view of Jesus’s message- a message not for the few but for the many, not for the special or religious but for those whose daily lives are hard and often complicated by being forced into or trapped within compromising and dubious choices. In particular, Luke includes tax collectors and soldiers among those who come to hear John.
Our official translations often avoid communicating the wild and fluid nature of the Biblical conversations. ‘Listen’ to how Richard Swanson of the Provoking the gospel project renders the encounter between John and the crowds.
They kept asking him, the crowds did, they said: What should we do? He answered, he kept saying to them: ‘the one having two coats, give one to the one who has none. The one having goods: do likewise’. They came, even tax gatherers, to be purified. They said to him: ‘Teacher what should we do’? He said to them: ‘nothing beyond what is set to you. Beyond that do nothing’. They asked him, soldiers, they said: ‘what should we do, even we’? He said to them: ‘rob no one, neither be an informer, and let your wages be enough’.Richard Swanson’s Provoking the gospel: methods to embody Biblical storytelling through drama
The first thing to notice is that the members of dubious groups like tax collectors and soldiers ask John, not what should we believe, but what should we do? Tax collectors were Jewish traitors because they collaborated with the Roman occupation,not only collecting the Roman taxes but top slicing their profit from what they collected, and so collecting a little more than they needed to. John’s view of them seems to accept that everyone needs to earn a living, even if sometimes by dubious means. Even so, he tells them: collect the tax but oppress your neighbors no more than you need to, to satisfy Roman demands.
If they don’t tell you to bring the tribute in money boxes or cash bags,” says John, “Don’t. Turn in heaps of pennies. If people pay you in chickens or goats, turn in the livestock. Let the Romans figure out how to feed their tribute.Swanson
Soldiers were notorious street thugs who like modern day vigilantes terrorized local communities through extortion with menaces and violence – in effect setting up and administering their own protection rackets. John says to them: if you want to do know what you should do to be right with God, don’t be mindless proxies for a violent system of oppression; be satisfied with your wages and stop exploiting your own community.
John seems to recognize that life at times can be a morally ambiguous affair. In other words, you may not be able to control the whole of your situation, but nevertheless quietly resist sacrificing your sense of right and wrong to a cynical transactional approach to living.
And to those of us who live ordinary, noncontroversial lives, those of us who enjoy some abundance but an abundance that is finite and limited; to us John says: it’s fine to have two coats, but if having two coats means that someone else has no coat, then share what is actually your surplus.
In what or where lies our hope? An even more fundamental question: Is it even worth it to risk hoping at all? Beneath both questions sounds the solid drumbeat of the crows question to John: Teacher, tell us, what should we do? So think about it this way. Without the prophetic dream of God’s putting to rights all that currently seems so wrong we have little inspiration to act similarly in the present. Without a strong hopeful vision setting the needle of our moral compass to guide our actions we will fall into the temptation of being guided only by the concept of what we can get away with.
John the Baptist is popularly presented as the most uncompromising of characters, whose very strictness gives us an excuse for backsliding, because how can we ever match up to his moral and spiritual demands? Yet, in Luke’s picture of him he seems to understand that life choices are made in the grey ambiguity of circumstances where mixed motivations vie with each other, self-interest competes with our genuine concern for others.
Prophetic hope, the greater vision of God’s restoration of Israel should not be misunderstood as a reflection of good times following bad times. In fact, the prophetic vision of God’s restoration of Israel occurs often in the darkest of moments,either just before national catastrophe as in the case of the first Isaiah or after such a catastrophe as in the case of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Teacher, tell us, what should we do? The answer is: struggle to keep hope alive. Advent’s hope is simply this: