Monday, December 3, 2012

St. Zephaniah, Prophet

1 Timothy 5:1-10 / Luke 20:27-44

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Paul's words to Timothy are stark and chilling. We might well expect, of course, that one who does not provide for his own has failed in significant ways to live an upright live. Indeed, we may even suppose that there might be so significant a failure to provide for one's own, to abandon one's parents in their old age or one's children in their infancy and youth, that such an abandonment would constitute a final and irrevocable turning away from the Lord. That such a moral failure is possible we do well to consider, especially those who prey upon the young and the elderly placed under their care.

However, it may well seem odd to suggest that such a fault constitutes a denial of the faith. A denial of basic moral uprightness, to be sure, but why a denial of the faith? The question ought to be pressing enough for any Christian, but surely all the more in the Year of Faith which the Holy Father has dedicated to our growing ever deeper into this foundation of our lives in Jesus Christ.

It may do well to recall here, as St. Paul does for Timothy, that there is a kind of order to our life of charity, a ranked set of responsibilities to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That we owe respect to all of our elders as to our own parents, Paul explains, is a given, as we owe kindness to those younger than ourselves as to our own brothers and sisters. Yet, even in the life of charity there are priorities, and we owe a special concern not to those who have their own relatives to care for them, but to our own flesh and blood and to those who have no kin to see to their needs in their old age.

Jesus likewise, in his confrontation with the Sadducees, reminds them that the requirement in the Law for brothers to attend to their deceased brother's widow is not directed to the next life, but to this one. It says nothing about the world to come, where those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage. Rather, this requirement of the Law looks to the needs, here and now, of women left without anyone to care for them, without husband or children to see to their support, and calls precisely upon their deceased husband's kin, those who are closest to her in this life, to see to their needs.

Zephaniah, too, in taking part in Josiah's reform of Judah and the calling of the people of God to right worship and fidelity to the Law, while noting that God's terrible judgment will come upon all people, reserves his prophetic warning for Jerusalem and Judah. It is not that the other peoples of the world have not sinned. Rather, it is that Zephaniah, as a prophet of Judah, as a special obligation to warn his own people away from false belief and the luxurious lifestyle that followed upon it.

What is true in each of these cases is that our kin, whether blood relatives, relations by marriage, or fellow citizens, are not related to us by some random or accidental event. Even if we did not choose to be so related to them, even if we came about to be connected through the choices of another, they have been placed in our lives for our sake by the Lord himself. Said simply, our families were made for us, and we for them. We were introduced into their lives so that God's love for them might not be communicated only by the general and universal good of the world, but even more so through the personal presence of those with whom we have much in common: by ties of blood, by ties of family, by ties of a common way of life and a shared, common good.

To deny those who are close to us their due, then, is to deny the creative and provident care of God himself. This is why failing to care for those entrusted to us is an assault not merely on human dignity, but on the faith. For a Christian, who claims to trust in God's Providence through Jesus Christ to abandon those whom the same Lord has given them as the proper objects of his love, is to make a mockery of the faith he claims to profess. May we, who continue our path to rejoice again in the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to celebrate his becoming kin to us by taking upon himself our human nature, show our true gratitude in the patient and generous concerns of those whom God has made part of our family.

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