Much of the political debate in our country centers around areas of justice. The term itself is not often employed in discussion, probably because it carries a religious connotation, but the general intent remains. The increasing income disparity, the over taxation of the working class, and the disproportionate prosecution and punishment within the justice system are serious social matters that need to be addressed.

We muddle the discussion as we tend to see “justice” and “fairness” as moral equivalents. These two principles are often more in conflict with each other than in sync. It seems that on a personal level we prefer that things are fair. But just being fair is often short-sighted as it tries to create a false balance. Justice demands more on both sides, hence neither side feels that it is in their immediate best interest to act with justice.

This social dynamic is certainly not unique to our time or to our country. While there is an unimaginable wealth gap here and now, it would have been much more significant in the lives of the people during the time of Jesus. While the Mosaic Law promoted a sense of justice, it too was tempered by standing social conditions, and fell short in the face of the laws and customs of the occupying Roman hegemony.

This disparity of justice was a concern for the prophets going back as far as the ninth century before Jesus. Such social dissonance often leads to revolution, and unrest and turmoil both from inside and outside of the country were present with ancient Israel as well. In this midst of internal political pressure and advancing conquering armies, the prophets – and this week we hear from Isaiah – called for repentance and renewal, but also began to envision the coming of the peaceable kingdom of God.

By the time of Jesus, this longing for justice sought a political solution and the overthrow of the Roman control of the Promised Land. Some of the Messianic furor that surrounded Jesus sought justice through revolution.

As the precursor to Jesus, John the Baptist, who lived as an ascetic in the desert regions, came forth and preached repentance in the face of impending disaster. His was an extreme apocalyptic view, anticipating a coming disaster and period of judgment. Like the ancient prophets before him, he called for a change of heart among the wealthy and powerful, those who exacted injustice instead of justice upon the ordinary people. One might hear John’s preaching in rank political terms, much as did some who heard the prophets of old. Even today, there are those who hear John as a mere political prophet, while overlooking the necessary conversion and repentance that accompanies it.

This was not John’s point. He was not calling for political revolution any more than was Jesus, but he certainly called to task those who would act without justice, maltreat the poor, and sell out their own people to the Roman authorities.

John’s asceticism was appealing to the masses and threatening to the powerful. Intrigued as some were – and we hear elsewhere in the Gospel that even the Herod the Tetrarch like to hear John preach. The demand for justice – to return to the roots of the Mosaic Law and reform their lives – was at the heart of his preaching. The apocalyptic and eschatological furor with which he preached was a strong reminder that they were too focused on worldly power and not on the Kingdom of God. He knows, as do we,that focused on God’s Kingdom the world becomes powerless, and is then necessarily transformed into a peaceable kingdom.

There is a stark contrast to the First Reading and the Gospel. Isaiah leaves us with the deep sense of hope, while John boils with apocalyptic furor. We, as disciples of Jesus, always live in the tension between judgment and hope.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.