What Should We Do?

In the liturgy on this third Sunday of Advent, we hear the words of John the Baptist. Two thousand years ago crowds came to him and asked: “what should we do?” He answered: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.”

Usually, we do not even do that bare minimum. Nevertheless, for us at this point in Western history, another crucial point is that John is not advocating redistributionism where a third party like the government arbitrarily decides how much you are allowed and how much it will take – and then uses what it takes to buy votes.

John was not the messenger of the religious theism found in the modern Whig economic individualism at the heart of ideologies of redistribution. Such an individualism means that, as historian Glenn W. Olsen has put it in The Turn to Transcendence, “with Locke the ‘friend’ of traditional society disappeared. . . . [And] an undefined and abstract egalitarianism, always experienced as a thing of the surface, advanced at the expense of concrete forms of friendship, the deep things that from time immemorial had defined the actual societies of village and neighborhood.”

In stark contrast, John’s message of repentance was intended to lead people to sharing what they had out of friendship. With the coming of Christ this would be expressed in terms of love, not the emotion, but working for the good of the other. John’s preaching, however, was not superseded.

John did not proclaim a God outside of history (theism), but a God who through his Anointed One is present in our history and “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor.” In other words, He will judge history. John understood human history as God’s stage, one where he will judge all that he has made.

Such a history implies a sacramental world – more all-embracing than the technological world where we seem stalled – because, “all creatures speak of God and stand in an asymmetrical relation to him which is a creaturely participation in the asymmetric but mutual relations of the Trinitarian persons.” (Olsen)

The judgment on each individual and history would be in terms of people’s success in operating from this sacramental nature of the reality around us: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The “me” of course is Jesus Christ.

         John the Baptist by Bartolomeo Veneto, c. 1550

Then the tax collectors asked: “What should we do?” John answered: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Their question was tied to their coming to him for baptism. John’s was a baptism of repentance and collecting taxes justly and responsibly would signal that the collectors were indeed repenting.

They were not going to collect more than the prescribed amount. The fact that society was monetized, thus, did not translate into an occasion for graft. (By contrast, we’ve recently learned that thousands of Washington D.C. employees were caught collecting salaries and unemployment benefits at the same time.)

From another perspective, the tax collectors were respecting the people whose taxes they collected. They were upholding the integrity of society because human society was and is more than a source of revenue for the authorities. It is composed of human beings with all kinds of social relationships, some of which produce income.

Thirdly, there were soldiers who came for baptism. They asked him: “what is it that we should do?” John’s answer was: “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

The soldiers carried weapons and were trained in their use so they were a force to be reckoned with. The military was a distinctive element in a society that, when functioning properly, allowed the others in a differentiated social order to participate peacefully in a common life.

I have been emphasizing the differentiated kind of society that underlies John’s replies because we live in a culture that only vaguely connects with his preaching. With Locke and his “quest of a civil society distinct from the Church and from the ‘irrational’ bonds of traditional family and friends,” we have developed into a collection of monads that need to be coerced into an ordered body of some kind.

Thus according to Glen Olsen: “Traditional friendship, one form of which could be marriage, had been based not on equality, but on complementarity, the suitability for society of natural differences, the ways in which natural differences urge and advance social cooperation. Now the claim was, all are equal, all interchangeable.”

Once we accept a government that treats human realities with a crude egalitarianism instead of the way God created them, then we will reap the consequences. Because when we deny God, his revelation of himself in his creation and in his Son, we deny the multifaceted design of human society.

Among our other devotions, something well worth reflecting on during Advent!