Faith is the art of holding on to things in spite of your changing moods and circumstances. — C. S. Lewis
There is a simple and beautiful symmetry in the writings of Luke. “What shall we do?” asks the crowd and Peter answers: “Be baptized all of you into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sin. And you will receive the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)
Where have we heard those words: “Repent and be baptized,” before? In Luke 3, in the exhortations of St. John the Baptist. Not only that but the prolog to those invitations are symmetric as well. In both cases, the preachers leave little doubt: You are NOT alright.
Both preacher also have peculiar crowds in front of them. Peter has a festival crowd of devout Jews from many places hearing him. John has a crowd of devout people as well. He is preaching in the wilderness. It takes a determined soul to put down the day’s necessary chores to go seek out the prophet.
John’s crowd is further peculiar that it contains what are, for lack of a better term, “Henchmen.” Both soldiers and tax collectors. The soldiers were most likely Herod’s minions since it is not likely that the Romans would have sought him and besides that, the Roman’s had signed Herod the duty to keep order anyway. The tax collectors probably were the local “muscle” for the chief tax collectors like Zacchaeus, which made them “legalized” bandits, but wandering ruffians none-the-less. Like Herod’s soldiers, the tax collectors were underpaid. It was just part of doing business at the time that one had to deal with demands from both groups now again that were simply extortion.
We can and ought to look at the way John deals with the questions the crowd asks of him. Unlike Matthew, Luke chose to report that John did not leave his proclamation at the point of calling everyone vipers. No, John has concrete things to say about the living of these days.
To the crowd John directs a picture of community in charitable unity: “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Having in excess of what the day demanded was questionable in Luke’s time. Later in the Gospel of Luke we meet those who have to the excess, like the man who builds more barns to hoard his harvest or Dives who has rich foods in excess. These are used as warnings to say: “The excess you are living is depriving Lazarus. This will not stand. This will be judged.” Riches were suspicious in the 1st century. They might have been given by the Almighty, but if so, why are you not sharing the blessings? Were they maybe not a blessing from God but the fruit of exploitive dealings? In a place where there are poor people that are landless, that question will very naturally be asked.
The tax collectors are told that honesty was to be valued. Toll stations had their set quota but a bit of cheating with the scales could net the henchmen a bit of extra income.
Herod’s minions are told not to terrorize people for personal gain. In other words, they are to live without being a threat to their neighbors.
In the words of Mary, Mother of God: “He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their throne and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.”
If one was to be rich and read this with 1st century eyes Mary’s words are a warning. Yet, reading on, those same eyes would now read about John starting at the bottom, the root, (3:9) Even here a new mind is demanded. Here the bottom of society is invited to live honest, just, and charitable lives.
The rich will get plenty of warning later in the Gospel of Luke. Their lot will be to prove with what they have that God is good by being the providence of God to others.
Here, however, a group that seems to be of much lesser status is invited to live in peace, peace the likes of which is not found but on God’s holy mountain.
“The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off.” The words Peter at Pentecost. It is for all because it is needed by all and it must and will be lived by all.
It is Gaudate Sunday this week. The name is taken from the words of Paul in Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.“ (Phil 4:4) True rejoicing will and does come really only when strength no longer devours that which is weak and when all flesh lives gently upon the face of the earth.
Fiji Yoshikawa retells and adapts the story of the great last samurai Mitamoyo Musashi, a man who lives by the sword and therefor, in good buddhist fashion, has to live down a bunch of bad “Karma” due to the many dead swordsmen and relationships that his quest has left in its wake. He walks on the earth, says the old master at Hoinu, with such strength and ferocity that he can be sensed approaching for half a mile away. The rest of the story from there on is a quest to walk gently, in the words of the old priest, “weaker.” Not merely that, but to walk gently for the sake of others.
Such is the call on Christians from the time of John and following: Walk peacefully for your neighbor. Be a gentle presence. Be a charitable energy in the world. Above all, a force of joy even in, and perhaps especially in, dark places, a force that proves that weakness is stronger than power. The babe of Bethlehem will prove it.