For seven years I taught in Nashville, which is known not only for its rich musical tradition, but also as a place where biblical religion was vital in peoples’ lives. Riding along one day I saw on a church bulletin board the Sunday sermon announced: Repent, for the End Is Near! The topic for the Wednesday evening service was The Bible and Financial Security! My initial, and somewhat unkind reaction, was mentally to write in after near, If Not, Come Wednesday. Yet as I reflect on Luke’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, I see the need for repentance in the face of the ultimate fragility of this world joined to an exhortation that our salvation is intertwined with a just use of material possessions.
In today’s Gospel (unfortunately truncated by the omission of Lk. 3:7-9), John, the fiery, uncompromising reformer, first lashes out at those who come to be baptized: Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? He then tells them that their election as children of Abraham will do little good without the fruits of repentance, for every tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire. John later resumes this theme when he points to the coming mightier one (Jesus), whose winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor, so the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.
Yet in the middle of this passage John is strangely moderate. He urges people to use their possessions kindly and justly, telling the crowds to share their clothing with those in need, advising hated tax collectors simply to be honest in collecting taxes, and soldiers not to exploit people and to be content with their (often minimal) wages. Since these verses are found only in Luke, most likely the Evangelist inserted them here to adjust John’s teaching to one of the major themes of the Gospel and Acts, that great wealth can be an obstacle to following Jesus, while proper use of goods should characterize the true disciple.
Hearing John’s preaching, we might ask where is the joy that runs through the first and second readings. Coming wrath and unquenchable fire are dubious reasons to rejoice. Still, as a figure of expectation for Jesus, John must have been disappointed. Jesus did not come onto the scene thundering threats of judgment, but preaching good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus’ first contact with tax collectors is not to exhort them to honesty, but to call them to be disciples and then to have meals with themso much so that he will be called a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 7:34).
Jesus’ way of bringing people to God is different from John’s. Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man who has come to seek and to save the lost; he eats with sinners and tells parables of a God who searches for them when lost (Luke 15). Where John urges acts of conversion and repentance as a condition for communion with God, Jesus practices communion as a prelude to a deep experience of God’s love.
There is much to rejoice about this Sunday, as we prepare to celebrate again the birth of God’s son, who will renew you in his love (Zech. 3:17). The readings tell us that no one is to be left out of this renewal. The church, like Jesus, is summoned to practice communion with and acceptance of those whom our society would reject.
Recently a bishop who had begun a hostel for AIDS victims was asked why money was spent to care for such people, many of whom who were not Catholics. He responded that we do not help suffering and oppressed people because they are Catholic, but because we are - a good Advent thought.