7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
What Ails Us Always… and the Treatment
I’m undecided at this point whether the Baptist’s indictment of his life and times makes me sad or gives me comfort. Maybe both. What ails the society when Jesus first appears seems to be the same as what ails our moment: greed and abuse of power.
Just the listing of a few names should suffice to prove the déjà vu of first century vice in the twenty-first century: Madoff, Rowland (for Connecticut readers), Goldman Sachs (bonuses, while the jobless are at 10%), Abramoff, Bruno. Sex it up a bit and the names proliferate: Woods, Ensign, Spitzer, Letterman, Sanford.
Tax collectors and soldiers are the aim of John the Baptist’s call to repentance. The U.S. Military and the IRS pride themselves on their integrity; but just a short door or two away from them are the likes of Blackwater and AIG/Citibank, up to their soiled hands in shady dealings, in security support services and finances.
The more things change the more they remain the same. Especially where money and position entice.
It’s a sickness to which none of us is immune. Even those closest to Jesus: remember the argument the night of the Last Supper. The disciples, there in the shadow of the cross, argue among themselves about who would be closest to the throne when their friend and master gets his palace. Nor have I detected any lessening of the impulse to climb as high as you can and get as much as you can in the clergy of my denomination (or any other!) however painstakingly the impulse is marinated in humility. Bishops still get bigger pensions and salaries than most of us less-than-poor parish priests. And I, in the spirit of full disclosure, need to offer my own mea culpa for the pride I take in arriving at the far end of life in a big house with a more-than-ample income.
Timothy is right after all, that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Lust for power too.
The diagnosis then and now matches my experience. The issue that remains - unless one is totally cynical and inclined, therefore, to throw up one’s hands for the futility of it all – is the cure. Or better, not a cure, a treatment for a chronic condition of the human soul; it is also offered by the Baptist, later seconded strongly by Jesus: generosity.
Personally, to begin with. Andy Rooney this past Sunday evening (was he in church and did he hear this lection read?) spoke in his delightfully curmudgeonly way about bonuses and big salaries, noting that, though he was well paid, he still had to watch his pennies. Besides, he admitted to thoughts that have crossed my mind, that even his small fortune made him feel guilty in the presence of those who had barely enough to buy bread for the day. Feelings of guilt, of course, don’t do much for the penniless, unless they move us to open our wallets, give the shirts off our backs, and the mittens off our hands. When it’s Christmas and when it isn’t Christmas.
Accordingly, I admit to being a sucker for beggars, the kind that come up to me face to face and ask for money or food. Their presence stirs up a strong recollection of red letter words you may find in Matthew 5: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” The second time the same beggar appears, however, I am not so easy a mark, explaining to the petitioner that he needs help in a more systematic way than I can provide, offering him the names and addresses of appropriate agencies, private and governmental. Maybe even driving him there.
We are summoned to be generous, not stupid. Love needs brains; otherwise our compassion will be little more than a ritual of self-righteousness. The first great commandment, in an expanded version, would read that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, mind, heart, soul, and strength. Mind, mind you.
In that second great commandment just quoted (with my embellishment) I hear also a communal summons from Jesus. Personal generosity, yes, yes, of course. But public generosity too. In the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, in which it is made clear that we are to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked, we, that is, you and I and everyone else in this society, stand together, as a nation (!), to receive the final verdict. That’s a sobering thought that doesn’t fit with our notions of individualism. But if Jesus is to be believed, then when we stand before the bar of judgment whether we line up with the sheep or the goats will depend on how we did as Americans in feeding the hungry, etc. Generosity is also a public imperative.
Christmas is the generous season, from top to bottom. From on high we are gifted with God’s own being, coming to share our birth, our bread, our tears, our joys, and even our deaths. In imitation of heaven itself, and not just certain wise men, we give to others, our own others, of course, but others not our own, some of whom are identified in that parable I cited, named there “the least of these, members of [the] family” of Christ (which includes everyone!).
The generous heart is so full there is little room left for greed and power.