And the crowds asked John, “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.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,“Teacher, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:10-13)
John stands under a big hipster-looking cross next to a screen that still shows the chorus of the last praise song, and he starts talking about broods of vipers and fleeing the wrath to come and bearing fruit worthy of repentance and the ax lying at the root of the trees (see Luke 3:7-9, or Matthew 3:7-10). In the awkward silence that follows, someone sitting in a pew near the back yells out what everyone is thinking but is too polite to say: what then should we do?
US evangelical pastor John would probably tell them: “It’s really simple. All you have to do is pray and invite Jesus into your heart.” Or: “You have to confess your sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness.” Or: “Just believe in Jesus and give your life to him.” Or: “Come on up to the front of the church during the altar call.”
The crowd, or the congregation, might then say, “Okay―but all of these things are kind of vague. What does inviting Jesus into my heart mean? And coming up to the front of church and getting prayed for―do I have to? What exactly does that do? And what comes next after all these things?”
US evangelical pastor John might respond: “Okay, great! These are really good questions. I’m so glad you’re asking these things. Let’s get into some of the specifics of the Christian faith.”
What are these specifics? Maybe: “It’s as easy as ABC. A: admit your sins to Jesus. B: believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. C: confess your sins, and confess your faith in Jesus.” (Have you heard that one?)
Or evangelical pastor John might say: “Let me tell you about the Roman road. It’s the path to God.” (As this website puts it, it’s a “well-engineered path to salvation.”) He might say something like, “Romans 1:20-21 says that we are part of God’s glorious creation. Romans 3:32 says that we are sinners who fall short of God’s glory. Romans 5:8 says that, even so, Christ died for us, making a way for forgiveness of sins. Romans 6:23 says that God gives us eternal life through Jesus. Romans 10:9-10 says that we can have this eternal life if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.” (How about this one―have you heard something like this?)
Or evangelical campus minister John might say: “Do you know God personally? Let me tell you about the four spiritual laws. 1) God created you and wants you to know him personally. 2) People are separated from God by sin. 3) Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection is the only cure for this separation. 4) When we individually receive Jesus as Lord and Savior through faith, we can know God and experience God’s love personally.” (Does this sound familiar?)
The crowds ask, what then should we do? And John the Baptist (actual John the Baptist, not hypothetical US evangelical pastor John) says none of these things. There is no ABC, no Roman road, no four spiritual laws in a neat little pamphlet with cute illustrations.
Instead, John the Baptist offers simple instructions regarding what people should do. He talks about what it looks like to bear the kinds of good fruit that God desires. John talks about how we live.
To the crowds in general, John says, whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And to the tax collectors, who often abuse their authority by gathering more than the required amount and pocketing the difference, John says, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.
These instructions are pretty different from the standard evangelical answers to questions like what then should we do?―which generally involve believing a set of propositions, praying some words of a sinner’s prayer, and then (if we talk about the “and then”) reading your Bible and praying and going to church regularly until Jesus comes back or you die and go to heaven. Oh, and in the meanwhile, try not to swear, or drink too much, or do drugs, or have sex outside of marriage.
Evangelical Christians sometimes have an allergic reaction to anything that sounds like do this or don’t do that (with some exceptions, like swearing/drinking/drugs/sex, which we are often perhaps a little too focused on not doing―or on trying to prevent other people from doing). We look at the elaborate legal system God gave the Israelites in Exodus and Leviticus and think, “I have no idea what’s going on with most of these laws. God must have just given them to show us that we could never live up to God’s perfect and impossible standards, that we’re all sinners and need Jesus’ forgiveness. The Jewish people may have laws, but we Christians just have our belief in Jesus.”
The question of what exactly Christians are to make of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures is a complicated one (and beyond the scope of this reflection). But John’s prescriptions for the people who come to him wondering, what then should we do, are not complicated. They may not be easy, but they are simple. And they are doable.
For us, as for the crowd, sharing our coats and food and other material possessions, when we have them, is something we really can do. We come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses not to, because we’re selfish―but we can do it. It might involve trying harder to build friendships and community across socioeconomic lines, and there are all sorts of barriers to that―but we can do it. It might require us to fight against deeply ingrained assumptions that we earned everything we have, and we deserve everything we have, and if other people don’t have enough, they must just not be working hard―but we can do it.
And for us, as for the tax collectors, choosing to work with integrity in our jobs is something we really can do. We can choose to say no to all sorts of opportunities to cheat, extort, exploit, and otherwise deprive people of money in order to build more wealth for ourselves. It might not always be easy, and it might mean a smaller paycheck―but we can do it. In the context of a company whose culture and ethos is to exploit others, it might even cost us our jobs―but we can do it.
When John says these things, he intends for people to actually do them. They are not just impossible standards that we can never live up to, meant only to help us understand that we need a savior. John really wants people to live in a way that is more generous and less greed-driven. When people ask what they should do, these are the things he talks about. It’s more than just praying a nice-sounding prayer or believing in the doctrines of the Roman road.
John says, the ax is at the root of the trees. Good fruit matters. What does this good fruit look like? Among other things, it can look like sharing what we have with others, and it can look like refusing to participate in exploitative economic practices.
May we hold these things in our minds and hearts, this Advent season and beyond―whenever we find ourselves wondering, what then should we do?