Injustice, wickedness will not flourish

At a critical moment for us in Malaysia last Sunday, the Gospel reading was that of Jesus being tempted at the start of his mission.

Mar 05, 2020

By Anil Netto
At a critical moment for us in Malaysia last Sunday, the Gospel reading was that of Jesus being tempted at the start of his mission.

Famished in the desert, he had fasted for 40 days. The evil one then tempted him to take the easy way out: use his power to turn stones to bread.

And then he was tempted to fall off the parapet of the Temple and ask God to save him — in effect, putting God to the test.

Finally, Jesus was taken to a very high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world and all its splendour. The seductive lure of Power and Wealth. All this would be his if only he would bow to evil and even worship it.

But Jesus refused and rebuked this triple overture. He remained steadfast to his mission.

These are troubling times for us. We seem to have regressed to the ways of old. If we think our world is in a mess, everything around it crumbling, consider the time of Jesus.

The territory around him was under the Roman Empire. This was the most extensive sociopolitical structure in Western civilisation. When Jesus was born, the first emperor, Augustus Caesar, who considered himself a son of god, was in power. The empire itself would reach its peak a hundred years later.

The Romans imposed an uneasy peace that they believed would bring prosperity. But it was a superficial peace imposed through the force of military conquest wherein entire nations were subjugated (Pax Romana).

At the local level, Jesus was scathing in his condemnation of the religious hypocrites with a false notion of purity and honour who worked with political elites to oppress the ordinary people through burdensome rituals, injustice and a system of heavy taxes. Many were pushed from poverty to destitution as they lost their land to wealthy estates. Those who opposed the empire  were pitilessly crucified.

What could be a more difficult setting than this to plant the seeds of the kingdom of God. And yet, this is precisely what Jesus’ mission was about.

Many among the followers of Jesus saw in him a messiah who would liberate them from the clutches of oppressive rule. They were therefore puzzled when Jesus told them not to tell anyone he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:10). Why would he do that?

Perhaps he did not want them to think he was going to deliver them from Roman occupation. Sure, he could have summoned forth divine forces and resoundingly defeated the Romans but what would that have achieved in the long run?

If he forced the collapse of the Roman Empire earlier than it eventually did, what would he have achieved? Other empires would have emerged — as they did — in the course of human history.

But Jesus’ mission was neither a short-term political movement nor an easy route to defeat the forces of Roman rule.

Jesus saw that the fundamental problem was not the political-religious — even patriarchal — oppression and domination. The real problem lay in the hearts and minds of ordinary people and leaders who had succumbed to greed, seduced by wealth and power. Their mindsets had to change, their hardened hearts had to accept  the vision of a new kingdom based on love and justice.

This, he must have realised, could not be changed by a political victory or military struggle as the zealots of his time were trying to do. What would be the point of that if people’s mindsets remained unchanged over time, if greed, the lust for power and corruption remained?

Jesus realised that lasting, meaningful change could not come from the top down. It had to come from the bottom-up, and so he worked among the ordinary people ushering in a new kingdom based on love, compassion and justice for the poor, the marginalised, people with leprosy and the outcasts of society.

There could be no shortcuts nor did he want to put God to the test by summoning divine forces, as he told Pilate.

Six hundred years earlier, the prophet Habakkuk, who lived around the time of the prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah, could not understand how God could allow the picked (represented by Babylon under the Chaldean dynasty) to punish the less wicked (represented by the nation of Judah).

Habukkuk just could not understand it but he put his trust in God’s wisdom. His anguish may resonate with ours today:

2 How long, Yahweh, am I to cry for help while you will not listen...
3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing, why do you countenance oppression?  Plundering and violence confront me, contention and discord flourish.
4 And so the law loses its grip and justice never emerges, since the wicked outwits the upright and so justice comes out perverted….
6 For look, I am stirring up the Chaldaeans, that fierce and fiery nation who march miles across country to seize the homes of others.
7 They are dreadful and awesome, a law and authority to themselves….
9 …. they scoop up prisoners like sand. Habakkuk simply cannot understand this, just as we today cannot understand how God can allow injustice and wickedness to flourish. The prophet simply has to rely on God’s wisdom:
13 Your eyes are too pure to rest on evil, you cannot look on at oppression. Why do you look on at those who play the traitor, why say nothing while the wicked swallows someone more upright than himself?
14 Why treat people like fish of the sea, like gliding creatures who have no leader?
15 They haul them all up on their hook, they catch them in their net, they sweep them up in their dragnet and then make merry and rejoice.
16 And so they offer a sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their dragnet, for by these they get a rich living and live off the fat of the land.

We can be assured that the Lord is just and merciful. Wickedness will eventually be vanquished even though for a time, the darkness might be overwhelming, just like it was on that Good Friday afternoon.

But ultimately, the dazzling light of the Resurrection will prevail, and nothing can stand in the way of the kingdom of love and justice spreading from a tiny grain of mustard seed – from the ground up.

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