Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 13, 2016
First Reading: Malachi 3:19-20a
With the darkness that surrounds us, many of us Christians struggle with the virtue of hope. Yes, we can look forward to Heaven, after death, but this world often seems lost, broken and hardly redeemable. Yet the Gospel tells us that “God so loved the world…” We can’t give up just because of the troubles around us. In fact, we are called to stand firm in their midst, in “the evil day” (Eph 6:13). And still, there’s a question that nags at the back of our minds as we watch the sad stories of the world unfold, “Do we win?”
Dispute with God
This brings us to the last question given voice in Malachi’s prophetic book. The book is structured as a series of six “disputations” with God, where his people ask him difficult questions to which he responds. Our first reading for this Sunday, one of only two in the Sunday Lectionary from this prophet, is the Lord’s response to the sixth and final dispute. The faithful have accused God rather harshly of being unfair:
It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape. (Mal 3:14-15 RSV)
The Suffering of the Chosen People
While historians have a hard time placing Malachi’s book precisely in the timeline of ancient Israel, it is from the post-exilic period, after the Jews have returned to the Holy Land from exile in Babylon. While a humble temple has been built, there is no Jewish king, the economy is lousy and one can find precious little of the blessings promised to the faithful in the Old Testament. It would be easy to look around at the surrounding pagan and prosperous nations with a tinge of envy. Even if you kept the hard questions to yourself, everyone would be thinking the same things—“Why would God do this to us? I thought we were his Chosen People! Where are the blessings he promised?” In fact, it looks like divine providence is working in reverse. The righteous suffer, while the evil prosper. What justice is there in that?
A Book of Remembrance
In response to the complaint of the righteous, the Lord writes a “book of remembrance” (Mal 3:16). He promises once more that their names will be written in the book and that they will be honored and rewarded for their faithfulness to him. He insists that they will again be able “to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (Mal 3:18). God is not going to leave them in their suffering forever, but change their fortunes for the good. (A side note: the NAB translation follows the Hebrew numbering, so our reading is Mal 3:19-20a, whereas it is Mal 4:1-2a in RSV and other English translations.)
The Day of the Lord
Thus when we get to the beginning of our reading and the Lord promises a day of judgment, burning, ovens, and fire, we are not looking at mere vindictiveness. Rather, the Lord is reassuring his beleaguered and downtrodden people that he really will judge the evildoers and honor the righteous. The fire of God’s judgment will come, but it will only destroy the wicked. It will spare those who are faithful to the Lord. This distinction is vital to honor justice and to encourage the people of God in the midst of suffering. Wrongs will be righted!
The Fire of Judgment
The fire of God’s judgment appears multiple times in the Bible: fire comes out from the sanctuary to consume the disobedient priests Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-2); fire comes down on soldiers coming to arrest Elijah (2 Kgs 1:10-11); John the Baptist threatens that the chaff will be “burned with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12); the disciples want to call down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54); and the enemies of God are cast into a “lake of fire” (Rev 20:14-15). Yet for Malachi, the righteous will not encounter the judgment-fire of God, but the “sun of righteousness, with healing in its wings” (Mal 4:2). While it might seem like the fire of judgment and the healing sun of righteousness are at opposite ends of the spectrum, I think it is more likely that they are the same, fiery presence of God. If we are against God, then the fire will overwhelm us, but if we are his servants, then we will experience it as a blessing.
Opposite Reactions to God’s Presence
God’s presence provokes two opposite reactions: judgment for the unholy and healing for the holy. The trial of suffering can produce holiness and patience in some people, but it can bring about bitterness and anger in those who do not receive it with grace. Likewise, persecution can produce glorious martyrs, but also it can expose many duplicitous hearts who capitulate under pressure. The Eucharist is the same way, it brings blessing and holiness to hearts in a state of grace, but judgment to souls in mortal sin. Our standing before God is put to the test in moments of encounter with him.
What Malachi’s message teaches us is that even in the darkest of moments, even when the whole world seems set against us, we are still the Lord’s children. We are still in his hands. He is still in control. No amount of suffering, persecution or trial can upend the logic of His universe. The evildoers will never prosper in the long run. The righteous will not be forgotten forever. The Lord brings his fiery presence against those who oppose him and he rewards those who seek him with that same presence. So, yes, we do win in the end, but it might take some patience to get there.