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Bible Reflections View Comments

We Need Both Justice and Mercy
By Diane M. Houdek
Source: Bringing Home the Word
Published: Sunday, December 8, 2013
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One of the ongoing discussions about the papacy of Pope Francis is whether he is emphasizing God’s mercy to the exclusion of a sense of righteous judgment. The followers of John the Baptist would have understood this quandary. They suspected that Jesus, too, was a bit too cozy with sinners. Good Christians know a proper balance is required.

Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets. Like Ezekiel, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, John was a voice in the wilderness, totally focused on his call and on God’s message.

Like the prophets of old, John called on the people to repent of their sins. He had a vision of what was to come, and he knew it would call for a complete change in people’s lives. He insisted the status quo was no longer enough for salvation.

In the Gospel, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to John the Baptist relying on their status as sons of Abraham. But John tells them the ax is at the root of trees that aren’t producing fruit. The Gospel gives us a vivid image of dead wood and chaff being burned while the fruit and grain are gathered into barns to nourish and sustain life.

John’s words today remind us that Advent is the beginning of a new liturgical year. It is a season of taking stock of our foundations, of examining the roots and structure of our spiritual lives. But it also calls us forward into the amazing new growth that emerges from the miracle of the Incarnation.

Roots provide valuable nourishment. They make life possible. But if they’re too constrained, they can inhibit the very growth they’re designed to nourish. As Catholics we have a strong tradition and often a cultural connection to our ancestors in the faith. This gives us a sense of identity and belonging.

But our faith identity can become tied to our ethnic, national, and cultural roots. If we rely too much on those tangled roots to define us, we can become insular and closed off from a world that waits to hear the Good News of Jesus. Our rootedness in one way of life or one set of attitudes can keep us from reaching out to those who are different, those we have avoided out of fear and hatred. To be fruitful, we must be open to this sort of newness.

Isaiah’s well-known vision of nature in harmony calls us to imagine sworn enemies sharing food and shelter, frolicking as companions. The prophet neither minimizes the distinctions nor emphasizes the nearly unreachable idealism of the vision. He reminds the people that the Messiah will not judge by appearance or hearsay but will bring justice to the poor and afflicted. This is the vision that was realized in the birth and ministry of Jesus, Son of God and Messiah. Following in his footsteps commits us to move beyond normal human boundaries and expectations.

Paul tells us Jesus fulfilled the covenant of the Jews and brought a vision of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Paul’s gifts unite the dreams of these two groups into one vision of Christianity. He doesn’t destroy healthy differences; he doesn’t deny individual roots. He sees the possibility for communion.

Advent challenges us to rise above the increasing polarization that threatens our world, our country, our communities, even our families. The repentance demanded by John is a good place to start. He challenged his listeners to produce good fruit. We might look at our own lives this Advent to see what fruit we are bearing.


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First Martyrs of the Church of Rome: There were Christians in Rome within a dozen or so years after the death of Jesus, though they were not the converts of the “Apostle of the Gentiles” (Romans 15:20). Paul had not yet visited them at the time he wrote his great letter in 57-58 A.D.. 
<p>There was a large Jewish population in Rome. Probably as a result of controversy between Jews and Jewish Christians, the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in 49-50 A.D. Suetonius the historian says that the expulsion was due to disturbances in the city “caused by the certain Chrestus” [Christ]. Perhaps many came back after Claudius’s death in 54 A.D. Paul’s letter was addressed to a Church with members from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. </p><p>In July of 64 A.D., more than half of Rome was destroyed by fire. Rumor blamed the tragedy on Nero, who wanted to enlarge his palace. He shifted the blame by accusing the Christians. According to the historian Tacitus, many Christians were put to death because of their “hatred of the human race.” Peter and Paul were probably among the victims. </p><p>Threatened by an army revolt and condemned to death by the senate, Nero committed suicide in 68 A.D. at the age of 31.</p> American Catholic Blog People are not perfect. But God does not only call upon great saints to reveal his love for the world. He also calls the broken and desperate. We are all called to act as God’s light in this darkening world.

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