In the Christian Church, Zephaniah has always been one of the least known and least used Old Testament prophets. This was so from the beginning, for he is cited only once in the New Testament (Mt 13:41).
He prophesied during the reign of the reforming king Josiah and was therefore roughly contemporary with Jeremiah. But he does not seem to have been interested in Josiah’s reform.
He was filled with a sense of impending doom—he had much to say about the day of the Lord, and for him, as for Amos, this day would be a day of darkness and not light, a day of judgment for Israel.
In view of this impending judgment, Zephaniah in today’s passage urges Israel to “seek righteousness, seek humility,” for only righteous and humble people will escape that day.
Zephaniah’s single contribution to Old Testament religious thought was his emphasis on God’s concern for the ‘anawim, the “poor,” an idea that will be taken up in the first beatitude in today’s Gospel.
Note that this reading is a composite one, bringing together two passages separated by more than a whole chapter. This combination of texts is wholly justified, since both passages advocate humility as the only ground of security on the day of the Lord.
A slightly different selection of verses from this psalm is used on the twenty-sixth Sunday of the year in series C.
On that occasion the psalm is meant to reinforce the theme of social justice; here it emphasizes the kindred theme of YHWH’s—and therefore the Church’s—concern for the poor. Note the refrain from the first beatitude.
Last week we saw how Paul wrote to the Corinthians in reply to, among other things, the verbal information brought to him by Chloe’s people about the divisions among the congregation. As usual, Paul goes to the theological root of the matter.
The trouble with the Corinthians was that they were too sure of themselves. They boasted about their wisdom. They believed, like the later Gnostics, that through their initiation into Christ they had been made partakers of a heavenly wisdom.
They were already on cloud nine! They thought themselves superior to other people who had not had this experience, and hence their cliquishness, which Paul was so concerned about in last week’s reading.
In today’s passage Paul seeks to “take them down a peg or two.” They think themselves wise and strong, whereas actually they belong to what the outside world would regard as the dregs of society: “not many wise according to worldly standards, not many powerful, not many of noble birth.”
They have nothing to boast about in themselves before God. It is not their own spiritual endowments, achievements, or experiences that are the ground of their salvation, but only God’s saving act in Jesus Christ, a fact that should humble them.
If they must “glory,” all they can glory in is the Lord—the saving act of God in Christ.
There is a remarkable parallel here to the way in which Paul dealt with the Judaizers in Galatians. The Judaizers sought salvation through the Jewish law, while the Corinthians believed that they were saved through their own wisdom.
In each instance Paul sees the same basic fault. Each party tries to find something in themselves to boast about, some endowment or qualification to give them security vis-à-vis God.
Being a Christian, however, means surrendering all this boasting, of whatever kind.
For Paul, boasting is the supreme expression of human sinfulness. Thus, the gospel gets under the skin of both Jew and Greek, the religious and the irreligious, for both are exposed to the same temptation.
The beatitudes form the opening of the “Great Sermon.” In Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount; in Luke, the Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s reason for choosing this location is that he understands the teaching of the sermon as the new law, corresponding to the old law given on Mount Sinai, and for him Jesus is the second Moses, the giver of the new law.
Each beatitude consists of two parts. The first part describes the humiliation of the present, the second the glory to come.
The beatitudes are not addressed to all people indiscriminately, but to the disciples, to those who have left all to follow Jesus.
Note that in Luke the beatitudes are all in the second person plural. Here Luke is probably original, for the “you” style has survived in the last of Matthew’s beatitudes. So Jesus is addressing those who have left all to follow him.
They are the poor— in spirit, as Matthew correctly explains. They are the ones who realize that spiritually they are the have-nots, who have no righteousness of their own and therefore hunger and thirst for (God’s) righteousness.
The second group of beatitudes is more activistic. It is the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers who are pronounced blessed. Faith, if it is genuine, works through love, as Paul put it.
It is those who combine both the passive and the active sides of a true relation to God who are pronounced already here and now to be blessed and who are promised future participation in the kingdom of God.
It has often been observed that the beatitudes describe the life of Christ himself. He was all the things and did all the things that the beatitudes enumerate. And that brought him to the cross, and beyond that to his resurrection.