In describing the mission of John the Baptist, St. Luke characterizes it as one of calling people to “repentance.” This week’s Gospel passage teaches us how such repentance was understood by John himself.
St. Luke records the fact that three groups of people asked John the same question: “What should we do?” John’s replies to all of them show that his view of repentance was not an empty attitude or state of mind. Rather, it seized every person in the totality of his or her life: one’s property and belongings are directly and immediately affected by his religious convictions (“Whoever has two coats should share with the person who has none”); likewise, one’s profession falls under the same religious point of view. There is no separation between life and religion, between God and one’s neighbor, between church and daily affairs.
The reason for this is that for John, as well as for Christ, religion relates us to God. At the very start of conversion or repentance is God as the all-important and decisive element: a God who forgives sins, renews our life, but who also requires sincerity and honesty in our “return” to Him. That is why true repentance entails action and why John the Baptist gives very concrete answers to the questions put to him.
John clearly expects that repentance or return to God will find an opportunity to prove itself in the existing circumstances: by sharing what one has with those who have not. Sincere conversion, expressed in the acceptance of John’s baptism, bears its fruit in obedience to God’s commands. For John, as for Jesus, the synthesis of God’s commandments is love, and love goes out to the one in need.
At the same time, John also makes it clear that repentance involves the willingness to practice justice and respect for others. Thus, to tax collectors John says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” While to soldiers he says, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” The categories of people mentioned in the Gospel (the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers) are not meant to be exhaustive; rather, they give John the Baptist the chance to demonstrate what conversion requires. Real action is called for. It is, in addition, an action that must be prompted by the desire to imitate the love of God. After all, the goal and purpose of conversion is righteousness before God, but there is no righteousness in God’s sight without goodness, without love, compassion and respect for one’s fellow human beings.
John does not require anyone to give up his job or profession; he just teaches how conversion applies to any given job, and thereby he implies that honest conversion can apply to every person’s life and work. The Baptist’s words are still very much to the point for all of us. We are all to a greater or lesser degree tax collectors and sinners. They had the honesty to admit it and asked John what they should do in order to be ready to welcome Christ the Messiah. In this Advent season, let us also ask what we should do if we intend to welcome Christ sincerely at His coming. And having heard John’s prescription for readiness, let us put our desire for conversion into practice by acting justly, lovingly and compassionately towards our brothers and sisters. Then we will be like good wheat, preserved and gathered into the “barn” the kingdom of Christ our Savior.
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)