“Sing and shout for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem!”
Zephaniah 3, 14
The crowds asked John the Baptist: “What should we do?” He said to them in reply: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Luke 3, 10-18
In today’s gospel reading, we hear people from three different classes of society come to John and ask a question we have all asked or heard at some time or other: “What should we do?” They have all heard John preach and, seemingly, have been impressed by his message. With no ifs or buts, John tells them that, in their different circumstances, repentance means living decently, honestly and generously. To the ordinary people John points out that, if they have more than they need, they have an obligation to share with those who are less fortunate. He tells the tax collectors to stop ripping people off. Those in the military are urged to lay aside their bullying and to cease controlling ordinary people with threats.
While we probably have little contact with the taxation department and rarely engage with the police or the military, we have all anguished over challenging, real-life situations. “What do you think I should do?” a man says to his wife. “The young man next door has been charged with driving under the influence, and he has asked me to write a reference for him to present to the court. I’m not sure what I can write, or whether I want to write anything at all.”
“We paid a fortune to give our son what we thought was a good Catholic education, and now he tells us that he wants to marry his gay partner! What’s more, he wants his mother and me to attend the so-called wedding! What do you think we should do?”
“Our seventeen-year-old daughter asked us if her boy friend could come with us when we go for our annual holidays. When we told her that there are only three rooms in the house we have rented - one for Carmel and me, one for the two younger boys and one for her, she told us that she and the boy friend could share the third room. “After all, I’m an adult now!” she told me. “I don’t want to alienate her, so what should Carmel and I do?”
“Christmas is just around the corner, and we don’t want to spend a fortune on presents for the kids. They really don’t need anything. Instead, we’re thinking of giving the money to the local St Vincent de Paul group. But the kids mightn’t appreciate that. I wonder what we should do?”
When questions like the ones above unsettle us, we find ourselves going to the tried and true principles and values we use to guide our lives. Occasionally, we modify these principles and values as get new insights into morality, what it means to be truly human and what is involved in walking faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus. The conscience that guided me when I was sixteen years old has developed and matured in the last six decades. Nevertheless, I still ask myself what I should do when new questions and dilemmas arise. The people who encountered John the Baptist were challenged to look at their lives in the light of the message they heard John preach. So, they asked the kinds of question we continue to ask when we reflect on what happens around us and within us. We then try to be true to ourselves, our principles and our conscience. Yet we still search out the wisdom of those around us. What matters most, however, is the motivation that underlies the actions we end up taking.
Those who came to John the Baptist seeking advice as to what to do had responded to his invitation to repentance. Actions motivated by fear or obligation fall short of those done out of generosity and respect for those they are intended to benefit. Surely, Jesus reminded us that generosity to others in need is best based on the respect we have for them, and the recognition that they are equal in dignity to us. Similarly, refusing to take advantage of others, treating them with courtesy, refraining from bullying them surely have to be based on the belief that they, too, are human beings worthy of respect and dignity, that they, too, are created in the image of God and reflect to us an image of the divine.
A wise friend of mine often gives the reminder: “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself!” I’m not exactly sure what he would make of the question put to John by all those who came asking how to bring their lives into harmony with the change of heart they experienced when they were baptized. What John effectively told them was: “Learn to love everybody you encounter, irrespective of his or her social status. It’s as simple as that.” Notice that John did not use “should” in any of his answers. And his message to us is no different.
The renowned Italian religious educators Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, after decades of teaching young children (aged 3-12), noted that what distinguished them was their “profound capacity to relate to God.” In her writing, Dr Cavalletti described the child as “one who moves with ease in the world of the transcendent and delights in contact with God” (The Religious Potential of the Child, Liturgy Training Publications, 1992). Cavalletti went on to say that the Catholic Church in many places has made the mistake of waiting for children to reach the age of moral reasoning before engaging seriously in the child’s religious formation. As a consequence, “the child’s meeting with God is confused with moral problems”. It is only a small step from there to turn God into an exacting judge to be feared. Many Catholics, whose school education took place before the Second Vatican Council, still carry the scars from having been given a vision of God based on a very rigid understanding of morality. Cavalletti was quick to point out that “it is only in love, and not in fear, that one may have a moral life worthy of the name” (The Religious Potential of the Child, 6 to 12 Years Old: A Description of an Experience, Liturgy Training Publications, 2002).
Gloomy and fearful approaches to God have been around for a long time. Many of us may have survived religious education classes convinced that God is a bit of a killjoy. Lest we start feeling sorry for ourselves, centuries before the Christian Era, Homer wrote the Iliad in which he described the gods of his culture enjoying private jokes among themselves while mere mortals had to slave away at trying to survive. Centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus, Shakespeare ascribed to the Duke of Gloucester in King Lear these words: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (King Lear, Act 4, Sc1).
But today’s readings from Zechariah and Philippians speak of a God who comes to bring joy into our lives. We all know what joy is because we have all experienced it. In reality we don’t dwell on it sufficiently. Nobody really has to point out to a tax collector that he would feel less like a louse if he stopped robbing people who already have heavy loads to carry. And no one has to tell police and soldiers that they would be more at peace with themselves if they stopped taunting the weak and vulnerable. And none of us needs to be told that we would feel better about ourselves if we turned our attention to feeding hungry people on our streets or giving the shirt off our back to someone more needy. All three of today’s readings remind us that deep and lasting joy is tied to a generous heart. If we could only grow into the conviction that God really does have a generous heart towards us, no matter how messy our past, then we, in our turn, make generosity our special care.