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Friday, November 26, 2010

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’” (Matthew 3:1-2, 7-8)

Second Sunday of Advent

December 5, 2010
Second Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3:1-12  Reading Here 
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

The tiresome battle is as old as civilization itself, played out again and again in so many human arenas. I speak of the dynamic tension that exists between law and freedom. Ideally, we mortals enact laws to ensure the order and freedom of the many. But because such laws are conceived by fallible human beings, they are as imperfect as are we. And when a law has reached the seeming limit of its usefulness, we need ask ourselves the question: Is the law meant to serve people or people the law? Let a press release from last summer put flesh on the dilemma:

“After a county inspector squeezed out a kid's lemonade business, so many [in Portland, Oregon] puckered up in disgust that the county chairman had to pour on a little sugar. The apology sweetened up some sour feelings and made 7 year-old Julie Murphy eligible to resume selling her Kool-Aid and water concoction for 50 cents a cup.

“At a local arts fair, Julie and her mother were surprised when a county inspector asked to see their restaurant license. They didn't have one. The inspector told them they would face a fine of up to $500 if they didn't stop selling lemonade. A second inspector arrived and the two inspectors were surrounded by a crowd of vendors supporting Julie and her mother. Ultimately, [mother and daughter] packed up the stand, and as Julie left the fair she was crying.

“But Julie has prevailed. [The county chairman said] the health inspectors were ‘just following the rule book’ but they should have given the girl and her mom a break. He talked with Julie's mom to apologize. ‘A lemonade stand is a classic, iconic American kid thing to do,’ [the county chairman said]. ‘I don't want to be in the business of shutting that down.’

“According to [a local newspaper], one vendor at the local arts fair is planning a ‘lemonade revolt’ the next time the fair is held. [The county chairman] said he doesn't know what he'll do if a bunch of fair vendors try selling lemonade without a license. As it turns out, lemons may present county officials with something of a pickle.” (Associated Press, August 7, 2010)

Indeed, the law is clear, and county health inspectors were just doing their job, protecting fair attendees from unregulated lemonade. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, they are to be commended for their diligence in serving the common good. But even the county chairman had to admit that, in exceptional cases – this being one of them – there is something greater at play than the law.

It’s a dilemma we face squarely in the gospel passage we hear today. Divinely inspired to prepare people for the coming among them of the Messiah, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’” (Matthew 3:1-2, 7-8) While John eagerly welcomed into the waters of baptism those who hungered for a new spiritual message, he raged against the Pharisees and Sadducees because, as custodians of the law, they had become idolatrous, caring far more for the law itself than for the people the law was meant to serve. Indeed, while those Pharisees and Sadducees may have been good and diligent men just doing their job, they had become blind to the truth that law is not an end in itself.

John the Baptist knew a truth that was completely incomprehensible to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He knew that the coming Messiah would bring from heaven to earth a new law that would spell freedom from the tyranny of the old law. And while John invited to baptism those who had been victimized by that law, he raged against the Jewish leaders who, even though they were eager to hear John’s message, had not turned away from their idolatrous worship of the law that had become the tyrant of the people it was meant to serve.

As this day we hear John the Baptist bidding us look to the birth of the Messiah as a birth unto freedom, we are invited to examine our own hearts as did one little boy who made a most amazing discovery:

“A nurse on the pediatric unit, before listening to the little ones' chests, would plug the stethoscope into their ears and let them listen to their own hearts. Their eyes would always light up with awe, but she never got a response equal to four year-old David's comment. Gently she tucked the stethoscope into his ears and placed the disk over his heart. 'Listen', she said. 'What do you suppose that is?' He drew his eyebrows together in a puzzled line and looked up as if lost in the mystery of the strange tap-tap-tapping deep in his chest. Then his face broke out in a wondrous grin and he asked, 'Is that Jesus knocking?'” (Original source unknown)

While we aren’t privy to the nurse’s response to four year-old David’s question, the answer is surely a resounding YES! Jesus has been knocking at our hearts for a very long time with a question of his own: “May I come in?” As Advent continues and Christmas nears, our hearts quicken as Jesus’ question becomes more insistent: “May I come in?”

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