Just do it: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:10–18:

The crowds asked John the Baptist,

“What should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.

Today is our third Sunday in Advent, another step in our expectation of the coming of the Messiah … and a few more shopping days before Christmas. It’s a season of joyful anticipation and preparation, although in modern culture that tends to have a much more secular cast to it. And to some extent, that makes sense. After all, we have already welcomed Christ into our hearts, and we know the ending of the story. Jesus triumphs! Pass the potatoes.

Today’s Gospel reading reminds us that mere knowledge isn’t sufficient, however. We must change ourselves in this knowledge, form ourselves to Christ — imperfectly, as we always do, but still work to form ourselves to the reality of salvation.

In John’s time, the context is clearly different. The Judeans know that a Messiah has been promised, but they do not understand His nature or what form salvation will actually take. They are anticipating a revolutionary in the worldly sense, one that will re-establish the Davidic kingdom as it existed before. They do not have the luxury of hindsight and history to understand exactly how the Lord will transform that kingdom into a church that will bring His Word to every last person.

That makes this Gospel story even more interesting. John the Baptist is telling everyone who comes to the desert to “prepare the way of the Lord,” as the anticipation of the Messiah will soon end as Jesus begins His ministry. If John’s audience expected a revolution, though, his advice should seem very strange.

Two groups of people connected to the Roman regime, either directly or indirectly, step forward to ask what they should do — tax collectors and soldiers. Both groups were reviled by the Judeans, and for good reason. Tax collectors routinely gouged people by abusing their authority to extract more taxes than were owed and pocketing the rest. Those who came from the ranks of the Judeans — such as Matthew — were likely seen as collaborators siding with Romans rather than their own people to boot. Soldiers abused their authority, pillaging at times or even worse, with all the arrogance of an occupying power.

If the Messiah is to come as a revolutionary, they likely expected John the Baptist to advise them to switch sides, take up arms, and prepare for the revolt. At the very least, they likely expected to be told to quit their work. Instead, what does John the Baptist tell them to do? He tells them to do their jobs, the same jobs that earn them the enmity and resentment of the very people anticipating the arrival of the Messiah. However, John the Baptist exhorts them to only perform their tasks in honesty and love.

This is a clear sign that the Messiah will have a focus well beyond worldly kingdoms, even if it wasn’t so clear at the time to those at the Jordan or three years later in Jerusalem. This is a lesson for us in anticipation as well. What are we called to do while anticipating the arrival of Christ — the first time or in the Second Coming? This Gospel makes clear that the church isn’t called to withdrawal. We aren’t called, for instance, to give up jobs and other civic obligations in that period of anticipation. Our formation isn’t one of retreat, but of engaging in the world without falling into the trap of being entirely of the world.

Rather than quit and hunker down, we form ourselves in Christ — and then demonstrate that formation in how we do what we do. Even a reviled tax collector can perform his tasks in a Christian, loving manner by exacting only the taxes required, doing so equitably, and being satisfied with wages alone. The soldier, even of an occupying army, can be a Christian by remaining disciplined and helping to protect the poor. In this passage, it’s not clear that these are Roman soldiers, although it seems the mostly likely explanation; they may have been temple guards or soldiers from  the court of Herod Antipas, for instance. However, we know that this is true for Roman soldiers as well, through Matthew 8:8 — a response to Jesus from a centurion that we recite in every Mass before the Eucharist.

Christ calls us to repent, to reject sin, and to re-engage the world with His love in our hearts while we wait for His return. That is the joyfulness of Advent anticipation — a joyfulness which Paul exhorts the Philippians to embrace:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

If we place Christ in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, then we can allow Him to help carry the cares and concerns of our world for us. We can release all that anxiety, firm in the knowledge that He has triumphed already for us. And in doing so, we will discover that our Advent is already upon us every day regardless of the calendar. We have no need to retreat, for Christ is with us.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Preaching of John the Baptist” by Bartholomeus Breenburgh, 1634. Currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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