A few weeks ago, I watched a movie made in the early 1950’s. The story was typical of movies from that era. There was a lot of tension between the leading male actor and the leading female actor. They argued, insulted one another, and did everything necessary to maintain a strained relationship. Eventually, the male lead character diffused the conflict by inviting the female lead character to join him for a cup of coffee.
The coffee offered by the male lead came from one of those instant coffee vending machines that were popular long ago. You are probably familiar with that type of vending machine. It was the contraption that dropped a paper cup (often at an acute angle), then sprayed boiling hot water and instant coffee powder into the cup (or down its side). As was customary in movies of that era, the tension between the male lead and the female lead was resolved eventually. They lived happily ever after, but probably not because of the poor-quality coffee provided by the cheapskate male character. I thought of that movie when I read this Sunday’s Gospel, not because of the similarities but because of the dissimilarities between the Gospel and the movie.
There’s a lot going on in Matthew’s account of the ministry of John the Baptist. This Gospel reading provides a summary of John’s preaching, some background information about him, and insight into his conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. John’s warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees contains some highly charged wordplay that eludes most readers today.
John described his ministry as “a water baptism for the purpose of repentance.” (Mt 3:11) Then, he referred to one who would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Mt 3:11) The Gospel’s original audience would have recognized immediately that the Gospel author had set up an interplay between three similar substances: water, spirit/wind, and fire. In the ancient world, water, wind (spirit), and fire were considered to be liquids. Modern computational fluid dynamics tends to treat water, wind, and flame as behaving in similar ways, but most people today don’t think of these three as being similar. Fire and water, for example, are thought of today as being opposites.
The Gospel author appealed to his ancient audience’s prescientific view of the world in order to convey the idea that God poured out mercy and redemption in the way that rain poured from the skies, wind rushed across the desert, or fire poured from a hot oven. These metaphors of flowing liquids were intended to evoke both the flowing water used in ritual baptism and the experience of incredible abundance being made manifest in harsh desert surroundings.
As I mentioned above, I was reminded of that old movie when I read this description of John the Baptist’s ministry. Those old-fashioned coffee machines spewed poor quality coffee in random directions. Then, the coffee drinker enjoyed the privilege of having her or his hands burned by overheated instant coffee in a thin paper cup. Those machines were not experiences of abundance or comfort. Those machines were quite the opposite of what John the Baptist proclaimed. Too often, however, I get the impression that many people view God’s mercy as being less like John the Baptist’s description of Divine generosity and more like those old, inhospitable coffee machines.
It has become very popular to view God’s mercy as something that has to be devoutly entreated, or even coerced from God. Those who think God must be begged for mercy tend to view what they receive from God as being more like an over-heated cup of instant coffee metered out parsimoniously into a vessel ill-suited to the purpose. It’s strange that some people seem to maintain a strained relationship with God, but there is a satisfying remedy for such situations.
John the Baptist described God as One who pours out mercy and forgiveness in the way that rain pours from the skies, wind rushes across the desert, or fire pours from a hot oven. John describes God as being generous with forgiveness and grace.
If God is so generous with God’s mercy, why do so many people act as if God needs to be begged or coerced into doing the right thing? I think it’s probably because so many are so reluctant to show mercy to others.
Advent instructs us to be generous. Retailers are hoping that you are generous with the Christmas gifts you buy, but I’m talking about a different sort of generosity. Christmas gifts are fleeting and, therefore, inconsequential. Rather, Advent instructs us to be generous with our kindness and attention.
Why are so many people so quick to assume that God is not generous with God’s mercy? Most probably, it’s because they’ve experienced no credible example to the contrary. You can change this misunderstanding by the way you live your faith. You can be the incredible abundance of God’s mercy poured out generously in the otherwise harsh surroundings of this world. It’s as easy to do as repenting of your strained relationship with God, accepting God’s generous mercy, and showing the same generosity to others.