And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
December 10, 2021, Words By: Fred Laceda, Image By: Unknown
Advent this year coincides with the election season in the Philippines. In my country, elections are often associated with polarization, division, hate, and sometimes even violence. But what is often neglected is that politics can also offer a deep sense of belonging that is similar to what people experience through religion.
Historians and sociologists will tell you that the moment we begin to imagine ourselves as a part of a community, we do so by imagining ourselves over and against an outsider. To imagine a community is to draw lines that demarcate “us” from “them.”
Unfortunately, when a community is constructed over and against others, rivalry and violence usually follow. That’s why, throughout much of human history, solidarity and violence have often been hallmarks of political and religious communities; they create a shared belonging out of nothing, but that sense of belonging often comes at a heavy price
Sometimes, communities can often act similar to a crowd, whose formation is an interesting phenomenon. In a crowd we see a bricolage of people who otherwise would not dare come close to each other. All differences are temporarily suspended in the name of unity to satisfy a desire or desperation that they have. Political and religious leaders often harness the desire and desperation of the crowd for negative ends. I often see this play out in the communities that we serve.
I want to be clear, I’m not suggesting that religion or politics are innately bad. It just so happens that they can easily be hijacked. But this begs the question…Is there a way to form communities without rivalry?
Our lectionary text this week,Luke 3:7-18,explores the themes of belonging and violence. We see John the Baptist speaking to the crowd gathered to be baptized. There we see what are usually called sinners and those who are ‘sinned against’ gather together. The crowd wants something. Such gatherings can be a potent avenue for violence as the collective guilt and frustration of the people is channeled to a sacrificial victim. That’s why we so often look at the crowd negatively.
And if we are to be honest, we usually look at the crowd – whether in the Bible or in the present – with disdain and contempt. We read the Gospels with a preconceived notion that the crowd is not part of Jesus’ disciples, that they are fickle and easily used by the powers that be. Yet William James Jennings calls the crowd “indispensable:”
“The crowd was not his disciples, but it was the condition for discipleship. It is the ground by which discipleship will return, always aiming at the crowd that is the gathering of hurting and hungry people who need God.”
The crowd is not the problem. The problem is the way they are formed and how they are being used by religious and political establishments to serve their needs. John’s practice of baptism addresses these issues. He calls forth repentance and social harmony. But the Baptist’s message is also filled with the threat of wrath. Whose wrath is it? Our usual answer is that it’s God’s.
Here we come to terms with a necessary nuance in our reading of the Bible. In the Old Testament, when they talk of the ‘day of the Lord,’ they understood it as divine wrath or punishment. In the New Testament the ‘day of the Lord’ is transformed to the day of God’s salvation. John lived between this period of transformation.
Perhaps that’s the reason why John is still caught up with violent imagery while at the same time declaring the good news to the crowd. Jesus’ ministry is different, it is characterized by mercy. Without the threat of wrath, Jesus envisions a community without violence and rivalry. Jesus’ offer of baptism is a liturgy on how to be truly human, a new way of being and belonging.
Dwelling Among Us
If repentance means changing how we see the world, does it also change how we show up in the world? What would it mean to bear fruit worthy of our transformed way of seeing?