A couple is Christmas shopping when the wife suddenly notices her husband is missing. She calls him on his cell phone and asks, “Where are you?” The husband answers, “Do you remember the jewelers we went into about ten years ago, the one where you fell in love with that expensive diamond necklace I couldn’t afford at the time and I said one day I would get it for you?” Little tears start to flow down the wife’s cheek and she gets all choked up and says, “Yes, I remember that shop.” “Well,” says the husband, “I am in the gun store right next door to it.”
This morning we read about a plethora of people from various professions who, after coming to hear John the Baptist and responding to his call to repent, ask a basic question, “How then should we live?” We come to church for many different reasons. We search for peace and strength. We seek community. We sense a need to praise the Creator of all things. We long for the beauty and mystery of meaningful worship and liturgy. Among the many quests bringing us to church is the desire to know how we are to live. We look for guidance, direction, and a moral sense of right and wrong. We long for a purpose in life more significant than the ability to pay the bills at the end of each month.
And while we come seeking lofty advice on such matters what John gives us is very concrete and down-to-earth. To tax collectors John says take no more than the amount prescribed. To soldiers he says do not extort from anyone by false accusations. To everyday folks like you and me he says if you have an extra coat share it with someone who has none. If you have extra food share it some with someone who is hungry. There it is. Straightforward and unequivocal.
John’s counsel covers three areas pertinent to each of us. He speaks to power, to possessions, and to resources. Each, he says, must be used in a way that fosters the well-being of others in the community. None is to be exploited for personal benefit alone.
Tax Collectors and soldiers wield great power in John’s day and use it for their own advantage. Tax Collectors typically take way more from the people than they are required to turn over to the Roman government. Soldiers demand money as well and force people into all manner of servitude. John states plainly the misuse of one’s power is an affront to God.
I suspect most of us do not think of ourselves as being powerful people and, it is true, most of us are not the movers and shakers of our society. Still, power is defined as the ability to influence or control the behavior of people and given this definition each of us must admit we have power… somehow, some way, over someone. You may take it on the chin time and again at the office, but when you come home you are the one with the power over your children. No one may pay attention to you most of the time, but you have the power to turn the waitress’ day into a nightmare every time you sit down at a table in a restaurant. Your parents may boss you around, but your little sister cannot defend herself from your mean behavior.
It is helpful to remember there are two kinds of power. The first is known as positional power. It has to do with the authority granted you by virtue of the role you occupy in a given organization or social structure. Parents have positional authority over children, police over citizens, managers over the rank and file. Most often positional power is granted to a person so he or she can use it for the betterment of those under his or her sway. It is an abuse of positional power to use it for personal benefit at the expense of those in your charge.
The other type of power is known as personal power. It relates to charisma, giftedness, experience, and the ability to influence others. Whereas positional power is appointed by the organization, personal power is granted to a person by his or her followers. Think about all the movies you have seen pitying positional power verses personal power. A huge wave has turned a cruise ship upside down. Will the survivors follow the leadership of the ranking crew member (positional power) or the passionate minister challenging authority with common sense (personal power)? Those granted personal power are by no means immune from abusing it.
There is an old saying that goes “The maxim of tyrants is ‘If I could I would!’” Judith Lewis Herman writes this in her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror:
In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.
Marlena Graves offers these questions as indicators of the abuse of power by clergy leaders:
How do they treat those closest to them? Are they bullies? Are they secretive? Are they servants or self-serving? Is it their way or “the highway”? Do they present one face to the public and another in private? Are they humble?
Henri Nouwen asked, “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?” His answer: “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people.” Graves notes “The people I admire most never try to usurp power or lord it over others. They are humble in their giftedness and others-centered.” I think John the Baptist would applaud the notion of being others-centered.
He preaches not only about power, but also about possessions – thing like coats – and resources – like food. I did a little checking. It turns out I have 23 coats, jackets, and windbreakers. By any count this is more than I need! And if you look at my waistline you know I have more than enough food to meet my minimum daily nutritional needs! I try to live generously and thoughtfully, but the Christian faith continually beckons us to reexamine our efforts.
Just when you are ready to pat yourself on the back for all of your good works along comes someone like the 4th Century bishop and theologian Basil the Great who said,
When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.
As unnerving as it can be, I like that our faith never gives us permission to be self-satisfied. When you are committed to being others-centered you always ask “What more can I do?”
How then should we live? John the Baptist didn’t say what I am about to read for you. It is a quote by the author and speaker Steve Maraboli. But had John heard it, I am confident he would have shouted out “Dilly! Dilly!” or some other form of approval:
This life is for loving, sharing, learning, smiling, caring, forgiving, laughing, hugging, helping, dancing, wondering, healing, and even more loving. I choose to live life this way. I want to live my life in such a way that when I get out of bed in the morning, the devil says, “[Oh no], he’s up!
The season of Advent has enough tasks already crammed into it, so I hesitate to add more. Here a few simple things you might want to do in response to today’s reading:
(1) Over the course of the week keep a list of the people over whom you have positional power and personal power.
(2) Count how many coats and jackets you own, making special note of how many you don’t wear anymore.
(3) Count how many shoes and boots you have, and keep tract of the ones you don’t wear.
(4) Check out your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and estimate how many meals you can make with what you already have.
(5) Consider posting on Facebook what you learn from these tasks.Do one thing with all of this in keeping with John's teaching.