This week’s gospel from Luke opens with John the Baptist preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Perhaps confused by what this idea of a baptism of repentance actually means, or perhaps so convicted by what they were hearing from John that they wanted advice on how to live his teaching, the crowds ask him, “What should we do?” In this season of Advent, John’s response to the crowd is instructive.
Here is John’s first response to the question, “What should we do?” He says, “Let anyone with two coats give to someone who has none. Anyone who has food should do the same.” Notice that John does not tell the crowd to give away everything they have. Instead, he asks them to do some basic discerning about the goods that are in their possession. If a person has two of something they only need one of, that person can give the extra item to someone in need. If a person has an excess of something else, then that excess, too, can be passed on to someone who lacks.
This part of the Gospel struck me in a particular way this week. I live in Minnesota, where two days ago we had somewhere around ten inches of snow drop on us and where last night, when I walked to my car after work, the temperatures were in the single digits. I thought about people who do not have adequate shelter in this weather and those (like the young children visiting the soup kitchen wrapped in blankets who are described in this week’s Spirit story) who must try to stay warm with whatever makeshift coats they can find. I know that I have an extra coat in my closet, and I also know that I can only wear one at a time. It may seem like a small thing, and it certainly will not solve all of the world’s problems, but donating my coat this winter can make a difference in one person’s life. And that is what John is asking us to do.
Take some time this Christmas season to do some basic discerning about your possessions. Do you have two of something you only need one of? Do you have an excess of something that someone else could use?
The middle part of the Gospel is also enlightening. After the crowd as a whole asks about what they should do, then specific groups of people start asking the same thing, including tax collectors and soldiers. To the tax collectors, John replies, “Don’t take more taxes than people owe.” In other words, do your job and do not extort extra money from people to pad your own pockets. To the soldiers, John answers, “Do not bully anyone. Denounce no one falsely. Be content with your pay.” In other words, do your job with honor. Again, notice that John does not tell the tax collectors to give up their jobs, even though tax collectors were largely despised by the Jews for collecting money to support the Roman Empire. Nor does he tell the soldiers to give up their possibly violent profession. Rather, his answers indicate that the best thing that these people, or any people, can do is to do what they already do with honor and integrity.
This reminded me of something I was reading recently about the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ), who publish Spirit and this blog. The sisters invite consociate membership in the CSJs, that is, they invite women and men living diverse life-styles and from diverse spiritual traditions who are committed to living the mission of the CSJs to become part of the CSJ community. Similarly to John, the CSJs do not ask consociates to give up their “regular” lives in order to become part of the community. What they do ask is that people commit to living the mission of the CSJs within the context of their lives and responsibilities. They ask people to “always move toward profound love of God and neighbor without distinction,” wherever they find themselves in the world and in their relationships.
So if you are a high school student, it is likely that John would not ask you to drop out of school to better live the message of Jesus. (Sorry!) Rather, John would ask you to think about what you can do to live with honor and integrity, to love God and neighbor without distinction, in your own corner of the world–in your family, with your friends, at your school, at your church, at your job, in your extracurricular activities, and wherever else you find yourself interacting with other people and other parts of God’s creation.
Take some time this Advent season to think about the roles you have and the relationships with which you are involved. If you were to ask John, “What should I do?” how do you think John would answer?