We must not forget just how radical the first part of John’s message would sound to a Jewish audience accustomed to thinking of themselves as the “chosen people” or the “people of the covenant”. John the Baptist basically says that just because you were born Jewish doesn’t entitle you to any special relationship with God or any special status in God’s eyes. Wow, a radical message indeed. The Jews’ claim to be the “chosen people” is blown apart by John who insists that a true follower of God is known by his or her deeds and not who your ancestors were or whether you were Bar Mitsva’d or not.
For John a Jew is as a Jew does. The direct application of this today for us is the same. A Christian is as a Christian does – in perfect accord with the message of Jesus who said “It is by our fruits that we will be known” – not by how many times we go to church or re-state what we say we believe, but for Christians – how much we love.
Jesus’ brother James in his letter in the New Testament puts it even more boldly when he writes “Faith without works is dead”.
The principle here is that what we believe will be pretty accurately reflected in what we say and do.
Quite justifiably the people in the crowd are curious to know what a person’s life may look like if lived in accordance with a deep knowledge of God and so the crowd questions John. “What then should we do?”
John answers this general question with an answer that could only be described as “redistribution of wealth” or more generally as “Justice for the poor”. And this would be in full accordance with everything the Old Testament says about God. If you have two coats give one away – if you have a surplus of food, share it. In fact, a concern for Justice, and dismay at exploitation of the poor is the overriding concern of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. John’s answers if put into action would have a huge impact on the way society organises itself of course but also has a personal component. In fact all three answers John gives are centred on Justice.
So to the tax collectors he implores them not to exploit people and to the soldiers, instead of a treatise on the morality of war or bearing arms which you might expect, John tells them not to extort money using force. Justice and fairness are uppermost, especially in relation to money.
The general spiritual principle undergirding this sense of Justice is an important one;
It is this: We are all made in the image of God, and none of us is any more deserving of the fruits of the earth than anyone else. None of us are more blessed by God than anyone else. In God there is no partiality. These are concepts that trip off the tongue so easily yet in real life, where the rubber hits the road it is just so difficult. God may show no partiality, but we certainly do. We sort out in our minds who we think is more deserving and who isn’t. The invitation to all would be followers of the Jesus way is to show more of the indiscriminate grace of God in our interactions with people and not to judge them.
I remember being what many will call a soft touch with the tramps that used to inhabit the churchyard in Margate, and sometimes when I used to give them money people would say. “You know that’ll just get spent on drink, don’t you?” “That’s funny I used to think to myself. That’s exactly what I was going to spend it on as well!
But life is so complex it is truly difficult. Don’t be too hard on others, but equally don’t be too hard on yourself either. It is also too easy to judge yourself and think you are a terrible person when you are not. You are a simple enfleshed human being trying your hardest in a complex world. Sometimes you just have to exhibit a couple of other divine qualities we could all do with more of – wisdom and discernment.
So, rather surprisingly perhaps, or perhaps it isn’t surprising knowing what the prophets were always prophesying is that true repentance (reorienting your life) would be seen in a concern for fairness and justice. The use of money and the way society is organised economically are spiritual issues that were close to John the Baptist’s heart. And when you read the Hebrew scriptures you see that it was the central concern of all the prophets and one can discern from that – that to be living in accordance with God one needs to be just and fair.
But the reason we need to be just and fair expressed in Christian language – is that we are all children of God – we all share one Father so to hurt another is to hurt yourself and God, which ultimately is one and the same thing.
We do live in a complex and confusing world, which often seems all too eager to swindle and deceive us; a world where seeing everyone as a child of God takes a superhuman effort on our part – a huge act of faith to continue to trust when that trust is abused, to continue to treat impartially when there is pressure to discriminate, to risk being thought of as a gullible idiot in a dog eat dog world.
But this is the central practical application of a spiritual truth that all are loved equally and that everyone really is our brother and sister.
If we can hold that belief whilst keeping ourselves and our conduct informed by a discernment and wisdom that is also divine then we are on the way, the path set by Jesus. We may fall off that path quite a lot but with practice and without reproach, ( by which I mean prayer and meditation and forgiveness of yourself) just dust ourselves down and trust that nevertheless this path – the path of Love of God and loving your neighbour - is the right one that is in accordance with the will of God.
All of this – a concern for justice and fairness, equality in God, discernment and wisdom will be gained according to Paul in our other reading today by living out of the innate central peace and understanding gained from a relationship with God, whose qualities we are trying to manifest, to make known in our lives. Centreing our lives in God’s grace produces good fruit in our lives.