“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.
We began the season of Advent at the end of the world. We continued at the beginning of the public ministry of Christ. This third week, Gaudete Sunday, we get preaching– good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preaching, and the demand of conversion.
The people are coming to John the Baptist, to repent of their sins. Everyone from all walks of life is coming. Even the most notorious sinners are there.
They ask him, “What should we do?” and John gives them penance to perform, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. It’s a heavy penance, the kind the people aren’t eager to do no matter how sorry they are. We would all be upset to receive this type of penance at Confession, one Saturday afternoon. We want a quick and easy penance, something that can be mumbled kneeling in front of the tabernacle before we leave the church feeling justified. Ten Hail Marys. Ten Our Fathers. A whole Rosary if you’ve been extra bad this week. And then we go about our earthly business and don’t think about the fact that we resolved to amend our lives. That’s what we’d like. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
John is having none of it.
John does not want people to go back to their earthly business.
John wants people to actually amend their lives.
“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none, and whoever has food should do likewise.”
No. Please, anything but that.
Give me a sackcloth to put on and I will. Tell me to crawl on my knees from one city to another and I’ll do it. Hand me a flagellum and I’ll get to work. Just don’t make me share.Don’t make me take stock of what is mine, and change my ways.
Don’t make me give what is rightfully mine to somebody else.
We have set up a kingdom for ourselves here on earth. That kingdom runs on scarcity. What’s mine is mine, and if you want something like it you have to work and earn one of your own. If I turn that around, if I give my hard-earned property to somebody else– not just out of my abundance, but a good half of my property when I wasn’t rich in the first place– then what? I will be a traitor to the kingdom of the world, and the kingdom of the world will be in danger.
If tax collectors stop taking more than they have to– then what? In this kingdom, everybody takes as much as they can get. That’s how we keep the kingdom going: the constant tug-of-war, the ever-expanding destructive wildfire that is a booming economy. If people stop taking more than they have to, they are traitors. The wildfire will go out, and the kingdom will collapse.
If soldiers, the whole warrior class, the people who keep the subjects of the kingdom in check, stop extorting; if no one is falsely accused; if no one takes the fall– if, perish the thought, they are satisfied with what they have and stop fighting– then what? The soldiers are constantly seeking out someone to blame for all the evils around us. They have to find someone to scapegoat, or else we’d have to take an honest look around and see where the real trouble comes from. They have to be constantly on the prowl for a victim to extort or we wouldn’t stay out of their way. They can never be satisfied, or they’d stop being violent, and then what would become of the kingdom?
These penances that John assigns tear apart the very fabric of the society that men have made for themselves. The prophet is demanding that we commit treason against the Kingdom of the World.
And he does that on purpose, because another King is coming. This King 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. Not because He likes to punish chaff, but because that’s what chaff is– chaff is the person who chooses that destructive kingdom which exists by consuming others.
That is the choice set before us: the life-giving Fire of the Holy Spirit or the destructive fire of the Kingdom of the World. The fire of pouring ourselves out for others or the fire of devouring others and never being satisfied. These are the only choices: between fire and fire. There is no third choice. You can’t just say your ten Hail Marys, forget about amending your life, and go on with being the same person you were before. You have to repent, be converted, and become a traitor to the world– or not.
We began at the end. We continue to the beginning, and now we reach the choice. Do you continue to be consumed by the unquenchable fire of the Kingdom of the World? Or do you choose to be a traitor to the world, and be baptized in the Fire of the Holy Spirit?
That much is up to you.
(image via Pixabay)