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The Remnant

January 29, 2017 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

January 29, 2017
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; Matthew 5: 1-12a
Fr. George Smiga

I do not know whether today’s readings encouraged me or depressed me. They seem to say that any given time that there will be only be a handful of people who know God’s will and follow it. The technical, biblical term for this minority report is the word, “remnant.” It means the remainder, the leftovers, a small group. Zephaniah uses this word in today’s first reading. Zephaniah was a prophet about 600 years before the birth of Christ. Israel was flourishing, and the temple was filled with people. But, Zephaniah did not believe that all the people who were worshiping in the temple actually knew what God asked of them. He did not accept that all the people who called themselves sons and daughters of Israel really understood God’s will. Therefore, Zephaniah believed that God would create in the midst of the people “a remnant” who would understand God’s will and follow it.

Zephaniah gives three characteristics to this remnant. First, they will seek justice, do what is right. Second, they will be humble. Finally, they will speak no lies. Now even in this short description it is clear that Zephaniah saw this remnant as a counter-cultural group, espousing values that were not accepted in the larger society. I would suggest to you that 2600 years later those same characteristics would be considered counter cultural in our time. Look at the people who have influence or power. Look at the ideas that control many people’s minds. How many would choose to do what is right, seek justice, as opposed to doing what is popular or profitable? How many people would see a value to be humble, as opposed to saying, “Look at me and how important I am?” How many people would reject lies and try to speak the truth rather then shaping that truth to fit their agenda? Not many, not the majority, only a remnant.

Jesus adds to Zephaniah’s thinking in today’s Gospel. He gives us the beatitudes. The beatitudes tell us who God intends to bless. God does not bless the wealthy and proud. God blesses the poor, the lowly, the hungry, and the persecuted. The beatitudes tell us that God is always thinking about the least and the last among us. And, of course, Jesus’ message is that we should have that same concern. But again, how many people—even those who call themselves Christian—would see their first responsibility to care for the poor, the lowly, hungry, and the persecuted, rather than catering to those who have influence to help them and promote their own success. Not the majority, only a remnant.

So this is what is depressing about today’s readings. They tell us that if we look at the people who say they believe, the people who come to church, the people who call themselves Christians, many of them don’t get it. They do not have a clear idea of what God is asking them and they do not see God’s values as their own. That is discouraging.

But there is another way of looking at the remnant that is more positive and optimistic. Perhaps the remnant is simply the way things are. Perhaps God is not so concerned about numbers, as long as there is a handful of people who understand and follow God’s will. It may be that it is God’s plan to have a remnant whose purpose it is to witness to the majority, even if their witness is not accepted. Karl Rahner, one of the great theologians of the last century, once said that when the Christian population rises above twenty percent in any area, Christians lose the ability to impact society and change it. That is because at that point people start to say they are Christian simply because it is acceptable. They claim Christianity because it is convenient, not because they believe in the ministry of Jesus.

So you and I have some decisions to make. We need to decide first of all whether Zephaniah is right? Is the remnant a failure because its numbers are so small or does it have value because the witness it gives to others? And, of course, we must also decide where we stand. Are we a part of the remnant, or not?

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