The Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, and the first Sunday of the Year of Mercy, has some very practical guidance to how to live the religious, righteous, faithful life.
When all the people asked John, ‘What must we do?’ he answered, ‘If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.’ There were tax collectors too who came for baptism, and these said to him, ‘Master, what must we do?’ He said to them, ‘Exact no more than your rate.’ Some soldiers asked him in their turn, ‘What about us? What must we do?’ He said to them, ‘No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!’
A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ, so John declared before them all, ‘I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals; he will baptise 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 in a fire that will never go out.’ As well as this, there were many other things he said to exhort the people and to announce the Good News to them.
We are not told what the soldiers and others did as a result of John’s teaching. And now of course what they did is not so very important. Much more important is what we do with it.
King Lear declared: ‘I am a man/more sinned against than sinning.’ Many of us might not see ourselves as intimidators or extortioners, or unjust in any way – but see ourselves as diminished, hemmed in, oppressed by others.
Though it is to be hoped that we do not do direct and deliberate harm to others, most of us are complicit in the structural sins of the sometime exploitative economic and political systems of the West.
It is not enough, argued Saint John Paul II, for us to seek to be free of personal sin: we also need to repent of and seek to correct the effects of structural sin. How we vote; how we spend; how we respond to the victims of organised exploitation, all matter, all are relevant when we seek to give account of our religious and moral lives.
Shrine of John the Baptist, St John Lateran, Rome. (c) 2005, Allen Morris