Whether it was his unusual appearance (Mark tells us he “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey”- Mk 1:6) or whether it was his extraordinary boldness and audacity (“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”- Lk 3:7), John the Baptist was an effective messenger. We read that “crowds” of people flocked to hear him (cf. Mk 1:5). Convicted by his words, they asked what they could do to be saved.
John’s answer is simple but not easy: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v.8).
It’s not enough to claim that you are children of Abraham (v.9), says John. You can’t bargain with God by claiming citizenship or ancestry; that doesn’t cut it. God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones if that was all he wanted. True repentance demands that you DO something. It demands that you change the way you are living, the way you treat people, the way you go about your business. There has to be some tangible evidence that you’ve had a change of heart and that you’ve turned back to God! How can you say you’ve repented when there’s no observable change?
“What shall we do?” the crowd asks. If you have two coats, says John, give one to someone who doesn’t have a coat. If you have plenty of food, share it with those who are going hungry.
I’m convinced that what John is advocating goes beyond mere charity. It’s a good idea to empty out our closets of clothing we no longer need, and to go through our pantries and cupboards to make generous donations to local food drives. I hope that you will do that this holiday season. But it’s not enough.
We live in a world of growing economic disparity. Kevin Phillips, in his book Wealth and Democracy, tells us that “in the twenty-year period between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, the percentage of total wealth owned by the wealthiest 1 percent of our population nearly doubled, increasing from 21 percent to just over 40 percent.” “During the same period, the economic situation of the majority of Americans worsened. In real dollars, both the annual income and net wealth of the bottom 60 percent of our population actually declined.” This is a concern for Phillips (and for us all), not only because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, but because the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few threatens American democracy, simply because of the political power and influence that go with wealth. And this threat exists not only in our nation, but throughout our world.
When John tells us, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise,” he is challenging us to address the systems of economic, social and political injustice that make such disparity possible. He is saying to us, “Bear fruits that befit repentance!”
“What shall we do?” the tax collectors ask. “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,” John instructs them. Don’t let GREED tempt you to take advantage of others. Tax collectors were well known in Jesus’ world for using their position and power to supplement their own incomes.
We’ve witnessed a modern-day manifestation of this sort of greed in the reckless and irresponsible behaviors of many bankers and investors in recent years. Using funds entrusted to them by their clients, they extended their own wealth, raiding the assets of others for their own gain. (This is not far removed from what the tax collectors were doing.) The temptation to misuse power and position goes beyond the banking industry, of course. When greed and self-interest infiltrate our dealings with one another, individually and collectively and as nations, we are bound to perpetuate injustice and cause suffering. Deal fairly and honestly, John says. “Bear fruits that befit repentance!”
“What shall we do?” the soldiers ask. “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Stop victimizing the poor people under your occupations by constant threats, intimidation and blackmail, John tells them. Peasants do not exist to supplement soldiers’ pay!
Nor do the poor exist to supplement the wealth of the powerful. Wealthy corporations who depend on the labor of underpaid employees, many of them in third world countries, are padding their pockets with the sweat of the poor. Massive companies like Walmart continue to take advantage of their employees by denying them adequate health insurance and by employing whatever means necessary to avoid paying a decent wage. If we are serious about repentance we must be prepared to speak up, to challenge economic and political injustice wherever we find it.
In her book, Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich reflects on her experience as an hourly employee:
“When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”
Much of it boils down to how we choose to use our power – as individuals, as consumers, as a nation. We can use it to try to control the world in our own self-interest, to structure economic and political systems so that they serve us, to impose our will on the world. Or we can use it to promote the common good, to build up peoples and nations rather than dominating and exploiting them. We can use our power and wealth with the well-being of others in mind, or we can use it to benefit our own interests.
“What shall we do?” “Bear fruits that befit repentance,” John tells us.
Our God is a God who is passionate about justice, but we often overlook this truth or resist seeing it and its implications for our lives. Theologian Marcus Borg explains that part of the reason that we fail to recognize God as a God who is passionate about justice is that we misunderstand what “God’s justice” really means. Borg writes,
Theologically, we have often seen [the opposite of “God’s justice”] as “God’s mercy.” “God’s justice” is understood as God’s deserved punishment of us for our sins, “God’s mercy” as God’s loving forgiveness of us in spite of our guilt. Given this choice, we would all prefer God’s mercy and hope to escape God’s justice. But seeing the opposite of justice as mercy distorts what the Bible means by justice. Most often in the Bible, the opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice. The issue is the shape of our life together as societies, not whether the mercy of God will supercede the justice of God in the final judgment… (The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 127)
He goes on to say,
The issue is what is commonly called “systemic injustice” – sources of unnecessary human misery created by unjust political, economic and social systems. Its opposite, of course, is “systemic justice”… The test of the justice of systems is their impact on human lives. To what extent do they lead to human flourishing and to what extent to human suffering? This is what the political passion of the Bible is about. (129)
The message of John the Baptist calls us to repentance and forgiveness; it calls us to examine ourselves and the systems in which we participate; it calls us to ‘turn around’, to change our ways, and to “bear fruits that befit repentance.”
Does that seem like an overwhelming challenge? Start small. Pick one issue that speaks to you. Read about it, study it, learn from others who are involved in bringing about change. Contribute your time and money and energy to make a difference. Change will not happen unless we decide to make it happen. We have created the economic disparity that threatens our nation and world; we must change it. We have created the culture of violence that leads to tragedies like the one we witnessed in Connecticut this past Friday; we must transform it. We have built the systems that oppress the poor; we must dismantle them and create new ones.
How can any of us claim to have responded to God’s call unless we “bear fruits that befit repentance”?
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