We are living in days of fire -- literal fires that scorch the land, destroying both trees and homes; gun fire that shatters lives with each speeding bullet; and political fire that divides the nation, pitting citizens against each other, fueling hatred and intolerance. Flames are all around us, causing havoc, distracting us from the plight of the desperate ones who sleep on our streets or who wait at our borders, sometimes separated from their loved ones or "warehoused" under deplorable conditions. Fire is everywhere it seems.
In portrait photography, if a subject is in direct sunlight, the only way to avoid "raccoon eyes" or unsightly shadows is to "overpower the sun" with on-camera flash. The light from the flash evens out the lighting, thus saving the portrait. In days of fire, we need an additional light source to combat the fury --not a camera flash, but a million sparks of light, joining together with passionate intensity. May we be those spark of light, strong enough to provide clarity and reveal Truth, and bright enough to spread love in a world filled with hatred.
"Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch,"
says the LORD of hosts.
"But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays."
Who are the proud and the evildoers who will be reduced to stubble ?
Though our first reading predicts their grim fate, taken out of context, the text fails to illumine the reader. The answer, however, is easily accessible. All we have to do is go back a few verses and we learn that "sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers" are among the ranks of the wicked, as well as those who defraud employees, cheat widows and orphans, turn aside the stranger, or fail to honor God's Name (Mal 3:5). There is also another category of the condemned: the priests who offer God "polluted food" and who have caused many to go astray because of their teachings (Mal 1 & 2).
Lest we too readily assume we stand with the righteous, it is good to pause and reflect on what is so displeasing to God. In the first place, there are those who dabble in magic, betray their spouses or habitually lie-- in other words, those who pass themselves off as being something they are not. The sorcerer displays powers that might convince others that s/he is semi-divine, while cheats and liars hide Truth from everyone around them. People in these categories lack authenticity and deliberately create illusions that hide their nefarious ways. They can be charming, charismatic, entertaining, seemingly loyal and loving, seemingly holy, and, yet, at core, they are rotten. Then there are those who underpay and overwork their employees, or who cheat the vulnerable or who close their doors against foreigners. The "wicked" here not only refers to individuals but to systems, policies and even nations that fail to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the stateless and refugees. As for those who have dishonored God's Name, their surface sin is to offer an imperfect sacrifice; their deeper sin is to break faith with God by turning away from the Law, forsaking integrity and righteousness for profanity.
We will be judged, then, according to what we have done and what we have failed to do, both in terms of our relationship with God and our human relationships. God speaks through the prophet Malachi, railing at both priests and people :
"Children know their father, and servants fear their master; if, then, I am a father, where is the honor due to me? And if I am a master, where is the reverence due to me?"
What rings out in this text is the voice of the broken-hearted God whose people, refusing to act with justice, trample the poor to make a profit. The Good News, however, is that God will have compassion on those who fear the Lord and trust in the Name of the Holy One:
"'And they shall be mine,' says the Lord of hosts, 'my own special possession'"
To be God's "special possession" is the goal of the spiritual journey. If we live with honor, integrity and compassion, we will know "the sun of justice with its healing rays" (Mal 3:20); however, if we turn our backs on the poor, we will become ashes under the soles of the just ones...