Third Sunday ofAdvent Luke 3:10-18
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.
Last week’s gospel set the historical context of John the Baptist and related his first appearance to a prophecy from Isaiah – “prepare the way of the Lord”. This week is more practical, with an account of the preaching of John the Baptist. He has already spoken in this gospel in the strongest of terms: he talks of a “brood of vipers” and that “even now, the axe is laid to the roots of the tree”. Today, we have something different – gentle and practical advice to some of the people who come to him – the advice on two tunics and the sharing of food. Such advice might just as easily be taken from later in the gospels – perhaps from the sermon on the mount, or even the Lord’s warning of what will happen at the Last Judgement. It is as if John is at this point giving a preview of the teaching of the Lord, and preparing the way of the Lord.
And now let us reflect on John’s practical advice to the tax collectors and to the soldiers – both groups thought of as outcasts by their contemporaries. Many of the tax collectors at that time would have purchased a concession from the Romans in order to levy a local tax, for example on the entry of goods into a city: they paid a premium to Rome and then set their own local rates – something similar happens to this day in many of our transactions! Taxes and levies may well be resented, but they can be part of the normal systems of life. So here is John the Baptist, not trying to overturn the system, but asking that it should be fair and equitable. And then the soldiers – probably not Roman soldiers, as at the time of the Baptist, there were no legions stationed in Judea, although there were some Roman officers, and we will encounter centurions later in the gospels. So these soldiers were probably recruited locally, either in the service of the Roman Governor or possibly one of the Herods. Again their presence was resented and feared by some of the local people – but John recognises their roles and responsibilities as he responds to their question – “what must we do?”
We too can ask that same question – “what must we do?” There are those who bring about radical change, but for the majority of us, this will not be the case. I am not suggesting that we should be “those who sit in the sty of contentment”, as Eliot describes them in the Ariel Poems (see reference below), but there is something very reassuring in the words of the gospel today. There is a need to find the correct balance in our lives, in our daily tasks, and in our responsibilities. For some, there may be tasks, which are far from easy, requiring difficult decisions to be made. For others, in the providence of God, the tasks may be less arduous. But all of us are faced with the same question – “what must we do”?
At one extreme, I am reminded of the way in which the 40 martyrs of England and Wales who were canonised in 1970 were chosen. They were not chosen for outstanding sanctity, but as a representative group from the Catholic life of our land e.g. a mother of a family from York, a nobleman from Arundel, a Jesuit lay brother, a priest and religious – from Rome as well as from Valladolid: there was room for all of them in this family of saints. Indeed Francis de Sales also explained this when he showed how true devotion can be accommodated to many circumstances and duties. But he also suggested that the solitary life of a Carthusian is not suited for a Bishop, and that married people cannot practise the poverty of a Capuchin! Rather he suggests, true devotion adorns and beautifies any state of life.
So this comes back to the central question in the gospel – what must we do? So not necessarily looking for radical change in our lives, but seeing what is there, and examining it carefully. Perhaps the counsel of the Baptist to the tax collectors and the soldiers can have an echo in our own lives – not wanting to change everything, but searching for true devotion.
“Love God, and love your neighbour as yourselves” is the answer our Lord gives to a similar question – “what is the greatest commandment”? But applying that in practice is the hard bit! At Christmas time great demands are made on our charity, and it is easy to feel that material goods are the answer to everything. Yet while charitable donations are worthwhile and often appreciated, time spent helping and caring for others is perhaps even more important, while time spent in pray is perhaps the most important, as it helps to root us in right thoughts and deeds. There is no time like the present to consider praying for our family, friends and neighbours: you may also feel that our wider country, our leaders, and the many billions of our neighbours around the world – deserve our prayers at this time as well.
Marina, by TS Eliot.
Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place
What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.
Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog