Ah, soiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God.
The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.
The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame. – Zephaniah 3:1-5
Zephaniah understands 21st century Jerusalem perfectly. Verse 2 hits with a special resonance. Cast against the backdrop of Advent, I cannot help but think about what Israel, past and present, wanted from a Messiah. That Messiah is the consummation of the power-cycle, where Israel dominates as it has been dominated. Do you feel me yet? That Messiah is the leather belt in the hand of the abused, becoming the abuser. Sometimes, I fear that those who speak triumphantly of the second-coming are tapping into the same perverse hope, bringing Christianity into the cycle: illusions of grandeur, by any means necessary. Christian Zionism, the self-fulfilling prophesy-effects, the inevitable fall.
I visited the Mount of Temptation this week and remembered Luke chapter 4. As much as I think the Messiah concept was a show of human perverseness, God’s prevenient grace was at work from the cave in Bethlehem to the one in Jericho where our teacher, Jesus, was raised to take over that prophesy and use it for God’s perfect purposes. The Adversary came from the depths of, perhaps, Christ’s own mind, and tempted him to be the Messiah that was wanted instead of the Messiah that was needed. Jesus refused to consummate the cycle: He broke the cycle! God redeemed our hopes with a better vision. He is immaculate.
3:18-19 remain a beautiful possibility to this day.
I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all of your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
God promises to deal harshly with the oppressors and to save the weak and helpless ones–I think we can lend a hand. Are not our oppressors, on some level, also weak and helpless? Here are promises to gather those who are chased away, giving glory and fame to the exiles, restoring the name of these people. It’s easy to fall into the trite interpretation that the nation of Israel is permanently in exile, in need of restoration, but what if Israel’s name could be restored by breaking free from the drunkenness of perpetual victimhood? What if Israel regained its honor not by expecting to be restored but by restoring those they have exiled?
Whether oppressed or oppressor, we do find a metaphor for ‘self’ in Israel. How can we free ourselves by freeing others? I know one Jew who dared to take collective responsibility and refused to continue the cycle–even under the condition of Roman occupation.
Jesus’s vision was not a campaign to end his oppressor but a ministry against oppression itself. When so many in his audience wanted their problems to be manifest in foreign armies who could be slain, Jesus was able to see beyond those misconceptions of ‘other’ and understand that the true adversary was within, to be defeated by self-death.
A reflection by John Daniel Gore