“What must we do?”
This was the main question of the those who listened to John the Baptist’s preaching or proclamation, which we read last Sunday (Luke 3: 1-6): “Prepare a way for the Lord. Make His path straight.” Three sets of people stepped forward and put this question to him: “What must we do?”
A. The People: To these, John the Baptist answered: “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the one who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same” (Luke 3: 11).
B. Tax Collectors: He responded: “Exact no more than your fixed rate” (Luke 3: 13).
C. Soldiers: John the Baptist answered: “No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay” (Luke 3: 14).
In all these cases, Luke did not condemn them and did not judge them in any way. He simply responded directly to their questions by recommending practical actions that would distinguish them from the rest of the people, and from other members of their chosen profession. Charity is demanded from all. During Advent, we are preparing to rejoice in the greatest charity there ever has been – God’s Self-giving to man; The Eternal Word becoming flesh and living among us (John 1: 1-3, 14). Reflecting on this, St. Ambrose said:
“The practice of compassion is shared. Thus it is a common precept that the basic necessities of life must be provided for all occupations, all ages and all people. Neither the tax collector nor the soldier is exempt, neither the farmer nor the townsman, neither the rich man nor the pauper – all are commanded in common to give to the one who does not have.”
Notice that John the Baptist did not ask the tax collectors and the soldiers to relinquish or resign from their professions because they were seen to be bad or corrupt. The profession does not corrupt the individual if he does not freely decide to let down his principles and ethos, and go with the flow. For example, the tax collectors at the time of John the Baptist were seen to be traitors because they were Jews, who were collecting money from fellow Jews for the Roman government that was oppressing the people. And in the process of collecting these taxes they would usually add more to the fixed rate. They were hated by the Jews. It was this practice that made their service corrupt, and not the work of collecting taxes for the building of the structures in the society. Similarly, the soldiers were abusing their power by taking money from people through threats and violence, they were dishonest and greedy. But the military profession that defends the territorial integrity of nations is a noble and respected profession. John The Baptist was aware of the widespread corruption and lewd practices in these professions, and perhaps many others. John’s message is challenging us to be a “sign of contradiction”; to swim in the corrupt waters of our professions and not be soaked by it; to be in the world and not be guided by the principles of the world. As Christians, we are not called to do as others do, but to be the light that shines in the dark, guiding the others from their dark actions (Matthew 5: 14-16). In all these, John the Baptist recommended charitable gestures and contentment as very core to our preparations for the coming of the Lord. These what we are called to do.