readings offer a difficult promise. “If you would hearken to my commandments,”
writes the prophet, “your prosperity would be like a river.” So also
the psalmist assures, “blessed is the man who follows not the counsel of
Even the Gospel seems to affirm this theme. In context Matthew ponders
the reasons why people reject the word of God, be it from Jesus or from John
the Baptist. The “children sitting in the market place” are playing
“wedding” (the flute) and “funeral” (the dirge). According to Matthew,
these two games correspond to the message of the John and of Jesus.
John calls to repentance (the dirge) and Jesus to celebration of the kingdom
(the wedding). Both messages are rejected, but with different excuses.
The Baptist is accused of demon possession and Jesus of gluttony; the challenge
posed by both is avoided and no conversion happens. It seems to me
that to reject John and Jesus by shunning their message is “to follow to
counsel of the wicked” and to walk “in the way of sinners.” Matthew’s
Jesus makes no effort to hide his contempt for such persons: “To what shall
I compare this generation?” Their generation—our generation—may not
be actively engaged in overt evil, but our ears may be plugged against the
dirge and our hearts hardened against celebration. I do not have
to look very hard in my own life to find the unconverted spaces that continue
to resist repentance and gratitude, both or which are markers of the “way
of the just.”
There is, of course, nothing particularly startling or revolutionary about
Matthew’s warning; hardened hearts and God-resisting sinners make frequent
appearances in the Bible. For this reason I began my reflection noting
that the readings contained a “difficult promise.” The difficulty come
not from discerning the message—the just are rewarded and wicked are punished.
Rather the difficulty comes from the collision of this message with our lived
experience. “On the ground” there does not appear to be any easy correspondence
between prosperity and goodness. Good people suffer terrible hardship,
and the wicked often prosper.
One might soften this reality by invoking today’s parable from Matthew and
noting the subtly of resistance and wickedness, but this will not do
for me. There really are large numbers of good people who “hearken
to [God’s] commands” but who do not “prosper.” I know from teaching
theology to so many students over the years that the problem of innocent
suffering troubles many people to the point of making belief in God difficult
Yet, even though I feel this tension, I believe God’s promise. The
season of Advent helps me. The Catholic tradition has always understood
the tension between the present and the yet to come, the already and the
not yet. The prosperity about which Isaiah writes has many dimensions,
the most important of which can only be discerned in the light of living
a converted life, a life of both repentance and gratitude, or reverence and
service. As Ignatius reminds us at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises,
a successful human life is not connected to sickness or health, wealth or
poverty, honor or dishonor, or even to long life rather than short life.
How “adventy,” and how Christian this is, and, indeed, how hard to live.
“Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life.”