3rd Sunday of Advent

December 17, 2006
See Also: 

John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on Incarnation

Reading 1: 
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Reading 3: 
Philippians 4:4-7
Reading 4: 
Luke 3:7-18
Alt Reading 1: 
Isaiah 12:2-6
By Russell Pregeant

If the gospel texts for last week tended to treat the theme of repentance is somewhat abstract terms, the readings for this Sunday leave no wiggle room at all for those who insist on reducing repentance to its individualistic and pietistic elements. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John proclaims, and then proceeds to concretize those fruits in economic terms as he demands the sharing of goods and honesty in tax collection and then forbids extortion.

As is well known, this theme of economic justice runs like a thread throughout Luke-Acts as a whole. Jesus defines his ministry in terms of bringing “good news to the poor” (4:14-30), and the theme in fact permeates his message (e.g., 6:20-25; 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:10-13, 19-31; 18:22). Some of these passages are quite radical. In 6:20-25, Jesus not only pronounces the poor blessed but pronounces unqualified woes upon the rich; and in 18:22 he commands an inquirer to sell as that he has and give it to the poor. In Acts, the radical demands regarding wealth tend to get modified in the direction of giving alms (refs.), but Luke’s image of the early church remains a major challenge for contemporary communities of faith. For in 2:43-45 and 4:32-37 we are told that the members held all goods in common.

The transformation of tradition that we can observe in the transition from Luke to Acts should disabuse us of attempts to apply New Testament teachings on wealth in a rigidly literal fashion to our present world. Our task is, rather, to find ways of honoring the deepest intention of this teaching that make sense in our own particular circumstances. However, we should beware of the temptation to soften the New Testament’s demands as a concession to the values of late capitalism and a consumer society. A faithful transformation of this tradition—that is, a truly creative transformation—will seek ways of appropriating the most radical elements in ways that call us not only to truly sacrificial giving but (what is often more difficult) active support of economic dogmas and policies that result in maldistribution of the world’s goods in the first place. It is easier to repent of withholding our wealth than from support of an ideology that is inherently supportive of economic injustice, just as it is easier to give from our abundance than it is to seek the kind of justice that might deprive of us that privilege through a radical redistribution of income, wealth, power, and privilege. And if attention to such matters seems out of place in Advent, that is only because of our narrow, pietistic understanding of repentance. To prepare for encounters with God ought in fact to provoke serious examination of our attachment to worldly goods. John’s words in 3:8-9, moreover, serve as a solemn reminder that God is free to work outside the community of faith, especially when those who belong to that community fail the challenge of repentance.

The three remaining reads focus on themes of hope and joy rather than repentance, but placing them in concert with John’s call to repentance underscores the way in which these two seemingly opposite emphases are in fact two sides of the same coin. What God desires for human society is not dour, mournful, rote religious observance but enjoyment of God’s gracious gifts—certainly a theme that is consonant with process thinking. And the function of repentance is ultimately to open the way for that enjoyment by removing all those impediments we place in the way of a good life for all. Our self-centeredness, greed, and unresponsiveness to God’s presence do double damage: they stultify our own growth by separating us from God, and they distort God’s vision of a community in which all call live at peace with one another and in harmony with the natural world. The Isaiah text emphasizes giving thanks to God; and the Philippians reading plays up the joy and the peace that attends the Christian life, both of which are enhanced by the eschatological expectation. The passage from Zephaniah is likewise celebratory, rejoicing in the deliverance of Israel and the repeal of God’s judgments against the nation. Toward the end, however, the oracle provides a link to the theme of God’s action on behalf of the oppressed that is so important in Luke: “I will deal with all 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.”

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).