Fr. Charles Irvin
Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Today’s Gospel presents us with John the Baptist, the last and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He was issuing a call for national repentance, proclaiming the advent of the Kingdom of God with the coming of the Messiah, and the need to repent and change our own individual ways of human living. His audience must have wondered how all of their national problems were connected with their own personal lives. If God’s Kingdom was about to be established, how could any one individual hasten or hinder its arrival? If the entire Jewish people needed to repent and convert, of what consequence was the conversion of any one individual? “What ought we do?” was their critical question. It is likewise our critical question. Their society was like our society. God’s answer to their question and ours was and is: Everything depends upon YOU!
The society surrounding John the Baptist had poverty problems just as ours does. What could they do about it? Well, said John the Baptist, they could share their resources. The person who had two coats could give one of them to the person who had no coat at all. Those who enjoyed surpluses could share of their abundance with those who had nothing. Would it solve their national poverty problem? Well… YES, if enough people changed their lifestyles. Each end every individual’s effort alone would not suffice, but all individuals summed together would make all of the difference in the world.
Political corruption? People abusing their privileges as holders of the public trust? Certainly there was a lot of such abuse back when John the Baptist was calling for a national house cleaning. Likewise we, too, in our times, know of political corruption, those using their offices of public service for their own private and personal gain. What could individuals do about it? Probably not much. But nothing would change unless individuals changed. Individuals could do something rather than simply do nothing. John seemed to think it would make a difference if even one governmental official cleaned up his way of conduct and started running a honest operation.
Violence? Abuse of power? Abuse of others? The people in John’s society certainly suffered those things. So do we. And to the extent that we refrain from using our positions of privilege in order to abuse, humiliate and demean others, to that extent the boundaries of violence and abuse of others will be pushed away from us as a people.
The sad state of our world can be traced back to our own arrogance – both individual and partisan. Intellectual superiority deployed upon others, military dominance, and our own economic prosperity improperly imposed on others whom we judge to be lesser persons leads to resentment, bitterness, and eventually anger and hatred. Violence is the inevitable result.
It’s too easy to facilely blame our own moral failures on the moral failures of our society as a whole. We’ve heard too much of such weak excuses, rationalizations claiming that we are dishonest because society is dishonest, we are ruthless in our business practices because “it’s a jungle out there,” we are promiscuous because everyone else is promiscuous, we are selfish and acquisitive because our culture is selfish and acquisitive.
Society will become more honest when individuals become more honest, because every society is simply the sum of its individual parts. Wars and violence will subside when we refrain from our own forms of violence toward each other. Poverty will begin to disappear when we are less self-centered and acquisitive. Sexual abuse will subside when we become more pure and liberate our youngsters from the imprisoning lie that they are simply the helpless victims of their inner sexual drives, or bodies to be exploited and marketed via the Internet.
We must see again that morality is not simply a private matter. We must challenge the nonsense that seduces us with the myth of free market morals. Morality is a public matter that involves us in sharing our common weal, a common good into which we contribute our individual and personal lives.
John the Baptist’s voice still heralds the coming of God’s Kingdom amongst us. His call for repentance and conversion remains just as valid today as it was back then. Everything depends upon what each and every individual does in his or her own personal life. Salvation will not be assured and society will not be changed, unless each individual recognizes the absolute necessity for personal conversion and change.
Advent is a time for you and for me to clean up our acts. It’s all a matter of getting down to the task of doing it first, instead of waiting for everybody else to first change their acts. Advent is a time for you and for me – personally. For if I am obsessed by what others are doing, thus diverting the moral spotlight from shining upon my own soul, nothing will change.