Imagine the spectacle described in the Gospel according to Luke, where the main road to Jerusalem crossed the Jordan River. There an unkempt prophetic preacher dressed in animals skins, called out to the passing priests, scribes, Pharisees, travelers and pilgrims – inviting them to a baptism of repentance. And when they started coming down to the water in significant numbers he called them a “bunch of snakes” trying to deflect God’s judgment, trying to avoiding what might happen. John told them to live lives that showed their turning to God (their repentance) of which they spoke and for which they offered sacrifices at the temple. John emphasized that their heritage of being descendants from Abraham would not be enough to save them. He warned that the axe was going to cut down the tree that was dead, and throw it into the fire.
John’s message resonated with some in the crowd. And hearing his words they wondered about their own life and what it meant in practical terms for them.
John understood that how we live is more important that what we say we believe. It is know that behaviorally actions usually precede belief. So if we act in a certain way, we come to live and believe that way. The crowd asked John “what should we do?” And he told them they should share what they had with those who had none.
Others in the crowds pressed him further. I wonder how John might have more fully explained it to them…
“I am a tax collector, I am seen as a collaborator with the Roman government by many, I am free to not only collect the taxes due and my fee but also as much as I can find ways to extort from others. What should I do?”
John responded – “Collect no more than the amount prescribed. Live within your means. Avoid the temptation of greed.”
Another came and said “I am a local citizen that was recruited as a soldier. I get no respect from my countrymen. With the country under military rule I have a lot of power over people, I can use that to get what I want by threat or by force – to get money or to get food, both to enjoy and to sell to others. If I can’t get respect I might as well get rich. So what is it I should do?”
John’s advice – “Be content with what you earn. No extortion or shake downs. Do not use the power you have for your own gain. Do not use the authority you have been given for anything other than good for others. Let your integrity, your righteousness and fairness earn you the respect of others. Then you will be truly rich.”
And yet another said: “I am in my middle years, my children have grown, I want to live well, and have a good life. What should I do? John says: “To have abundant life you need to take yourself, and your wants, out of the center of your life – put God in the center. Focus on sharing what you have with others. Your time, your talents, your resources – these are yours to share. What do you enjoy doing? Share that gift! And focus on deepening your relationship with God. Take the time to develop spiritual practices such as prayer – even when they do not seem to provide immediate fulfillment. Do these and you will live abundantly – which is even better than living well.”
And another came and said to him “I am a mother with school aged children: I have so little time, so much to do. I want the best for my children, and for myself. What should I do?”
John replies – “As important as your children are, for their sake and yours, do not lose your own spiritual life in all the busyness and by being focused only on them. You cannot share with them what you do not have. The best way to teach your child to be the person you want them to become is to do your best to be that person yourself – now. Your life is their textbook. Consumerism and violence are rampant in your culture – do you echo these to your children? Do you shower them with things or do you demonstrate simple abundance? Do you encourage a spirit of fear, or do you ground them in hope? The importance you give to your spiritual practices of service to others, prayer, education and worship in your life is the seed you plant and the importance you show them to observe.”
Yet another came and said “I am a senior citizen: I don’t like change especially in my community and my religion. I am tired. I am concerned about my health and my independence. What should I do? According to John – “Anything that is living – changes. The way in which the message is told changes – interpretation of the message changes – but God does not change. In each chapter of life you have to discover how best to serve and to live faithfully. Every person has a spirituality, which St. Augustine called “an ordering of loves.” What do you most cherish? What do you most desire? What is the treasure hidden in the core of your being? Look at what you love, and you will see what you believe. Then you will be in a better position to know best how to use the time, energy and material things that you have, and how best to live into the changes that are coming.”
Another came to him and said “I am elderly. I am restricted in my activities. I can’t get to church very often. I can no longer do what I used to do. What should I do?” John responds “Every person has a ministry they are called to. Your ministry may be the ministry of prayer – praying each day with and for those on our prayer list. It may be the ministry of graciousness – receiving with gratitude the ministry of others and lifting them to God in prayer.”
In whatever part or portion of your life you may be, you should feed your spirit, commune and communicate with God and find how best to engage in your ministry.
John the baptizer knew that the way we live and act is crucial in our spiritual development. The culture then and now is far interested in promoting the centrality what I want, what I feel and what I need. John was reminding and reorienting his hearers toward understanding the greater centrality of importance for what it is that we do.
Jesus, using the metaphor of trees, spoke of his followers producing fruit. And the fruit of our lives is seen in how we live, how we interact with others, how we serve God’s people. It may be through the ministry of hospitality, of healing, of listening, of feeding the hungry, or visiting the lonely, of teaching, of supporting those who do medical mission trips, or work with people released from prison, or one of the many other ministries to which God’s people may be called.
I am convinced that God will not ultimately ask each of us how we felt, or what our theological or doctrinal stance was, but God will ask what we did in our life, what was the fruit we shared with others. For the most important question of discipleship is the question each of must ask at various times and stages of our life. – “what should I do?” Blessed are those who on discerning the answer have the courage to do it.
And those desiring to see the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven, ask, ‘what should I do?’