In last week’s newspaper I saw a comic that depicted a distraught child standing next to a Christmas tree; the child was having a conversation with his mother about Christmas presents. The mother said, “Didn’t you know? There are two Santas: regular Santa and socks and t-shirts Santa. Sadly, it looks like you’ll be visited only by socks and t-shirt Santa this year.”
The punchline of the comic is news that no child wants to hear. Every child wants to get numerous, expensive gifts from Santa even when that degree of favor isn’t merited. Santa Claus, i.e., “regular Santa,” can be a strong motivator to good behavior on the part of children who hope for valuable Christmas presents. In a like manner, John the Baptizer intended his preaching to be strong motivation to his hearers to reform their lives.
Last Sunday, we heard John the Baptizer’s call to repentance and reform. This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the story begun last Sunday. This Sunday, John the Baptizer describes in detail his expectations for his hearers’ repentance.
In order to understand John the Baptizer’s expectations, it is necessary first to understand a major economic difference between the ancient world and the modern world. At the time John and Jesus lived, everyone assumed that material wealth was a finite quantity that was already completed distributed in the population. Our ancient ancestors had no opportunities for creating wealth or growing wealth. They lived in an economy in which all real estate and all financial wealth were already owned by someone. In that economy, the only way to increase one’s wealth was to take it from someone else by fraud or theft.
Consequently, when John the Baptizer told his hearers to be satisfied with their wages and not to take more than they were allotted, he was forbidding injustice, cheating, and crime. Today, we must translate John the Baptist’s exhortations into an economic setting that allows for the increase of personal wealth without relying on unjust measures. I’d like to make a few suggestions about how we can respond today to John the Baptizer’s warnings against injustice.
Everyone is entitled to hold an opinion about any topic; it is unjust, however, to impose your opinion on someone else. The next time someone expresses an opinion that differs from yours, the just and righteous response is to listen attentively.
No one likes to be bullied or threatened. The next time someone wants to argue with you, let them. You lose nothing by allowing someone else to have the last word in an argument; there is a lot to lose, however, by being the person who insists on always having the last word.
No one likes to be ignored or treated with disrespect. The next time you are the subject of someone else’s disrespect, don’t add to the volume of disrespect in the world by returning the insult.
These, and similar, acts of charity and forgiveness are required responses to the call to repentance, but they do not complete John the Baptizer’s definition of reforming one’s life. In addition to calling his hearers to repentance, John the Baptizer tried to inspire in them a spirit of expectant hope. The repentance he preached was merely preparation for something much greater; his ministry was merely an announcement of someone whose ministry would have eternal consequences.
Our expectation is for someone greater than Santa, certainly greater than socks and t-shirt Santa. In the life and death of Jesus, we’ve been given the gift of forgiveness – a gift that, by its nature, is unmerited. To accept God’s forgiveness requires that we give the same gift to others without regard to their worthiness.
If you want to overcome injustice in the world, the only way to do so is to renounce unjust behavior and live in a manner that proclaims the hope inspired by the Savior’s arrival.