Look up, receive sight: a community-minded take on Zacchaeus

I’m thankful for another opportunity to give a brief sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian. If you prefer a video version, it’s on YouTube here, and my part starts around 40:15.

Here’s the passage—it’s a long one, since we’re using this thing called the “Narrative Lectionary,” which tends to look at longer passages of scripture all at once as opposed to chopping them up into more digestible pieces with less of their surrounding context intact—and then the short sermon is below it.

Luke 18:31-19:10 (NRSV)

31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Our passage this morning is made up of three stories: first, Jesus tells the twelve apostles about what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem, and they don’t really get it; then, Jesus restores sight to a blind person who is begging outside Jericho; then, we get Jesus’ interaction with the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. 

In thinking about what ties these three stories together, something that stands out to me is the idea of “looking up.”

There’s a Greek word that’s used four times in this passage, that can either be translated “look up” or “receive sight.”

We see it three times in Jesus’ interaction with the blind man. When Jesus asks, what do you want me to do for you? the blind man answers, literally, Lord, that I might look up, or Lord, that I might receive sight. Then Jesus says to him, look up, or receive sight, your faith has saved you. And, immediately, Luke tells us, the blind man looks up, or receives sight

In the next story, Luke uses this same word to say that Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree. More on that in a minute.

The only section of our passage where this word is not used is the first section. Here Jesus takes the twelve apostles aside and gives them some real talk—not for the first time—about how he is going to be mocked and flogged and killed, and then rise again. And all these things that Jesus says here are hidden from the apostles. In other words, the apostles do not look up—they do not receive sight—to understand what Jesus is saying.

I like this idea of “looking up.” It sounds really hopeful to me, and I need that. 

For any musical nerds among us, it’s the opposite of the song Jean Valjean and his fellow incarcerated people sing at the beginning of Les Mis: Look Down. Look down, they sing. Keep your eyes on your work. Don’t think about the injustice you’re experiencing. Don’t think about the people you love. They’ve all forgotten you. There is no hope. You’re here until you die. Look down.

Look up is the opposite of this. It’s suggesting that, however improbable it might seem, there is still hope.

I wonder, in our own time and place, with all of its different forms of unjust incarceration, and immigrant detention, and economic exploitation of all sorts, and everything that is wrong and unjust in our world, what might it look like to look up, to receive sight?

In our text, for the blind person who was begging, it meant being able to navigate day to day life more easily. Being able to see things that are beautiful in the world. Being less vulnerable to being taken advantage of by others. Being able to work. It meant having people praising God because of him, rather than assuming he sinned in some way to deserve his blindness. 

This blind man shouts out his needs even though others tell him to be quiet, and Jesus listens. Jesus asks and cares about what he wants. Jesus brings healing to his body in a way that affects his whole life. 

The blind man looks up, receives sight, dares to hope that things could be different. He dares to value his own healing and restoration to community.

What about in the story of Zacchaeus? It might sound a little odd that Jesus is the one who looks up or receives sight here. 

On the other hand, we know that Zacchaeus is a tax collector. We know he was working on behalf the Roman Empire to extract taxes from his own people, to economically exploit his own people. We know he was an active participant in the heartless ways of the empire.

And not only was Zacchaeus a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector. This is the only place in the whole New Testament where that word, “chief tax collector,” is used, which seems to imply that it was a pretty rare thing, a pretty high-up position. To riff off of Miguel Escobar’s analogy from two weeks ago, maybe Zacchaeus isn’t just your ordinary developer working to gentrify the community, but, rather, the head of the whole redevelopment project—and the one who’s making the most profit off of it all. 

When the text says that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd, I wonder whether it was really just that he was short, or if it was also that people kind of elbowed him out of the way. I wonder if maybe they saw him, and recognized who he was, and intentionally tried to close off his line of sight and shut him out. After all, they had plenty of good reasons to hate him. 

Given all this, I wonder if Jesus, in his humanity, had this moment of looking up at Zacchaeus, and receiving sight—receiving the insight, or realizing—that this was the person he needed to talk with. This was the person God wanted to deal with in this moment—this complicated person, who was doing a lot of harm, who was a perpetrator of economic exploitation, and who was also genuinely curious about who Jesus was. 

Jesus, like the blind man, looks up, receives sight, dares to hope that things could be different. He dares to value Zacchaeus’ healing and restoration to community.

In a typical white evangelical mindset, where everything is just about me and Jesus, it’s easy to make this story just about Zacchaeus and Jesus. But the actual story we get here is not just about Zacchaeus and Jesus. Instead, it’s deeply embedded in the community Zacchaeus is a part of. 

Jesus says, Zacchaeus, hurry and come down from the tree, and Zacchaeus does so. Then the next piece of dialogue we get is actually from the community. All the people who see begin to grumble and say, ‘he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Then, the very next thing that happens is that Zacchaeus stands and says, look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

I think it’s easy sometimes, at least for me, to read people’s grumbling in this passage as a bad thing, like they just don’t get what Jesus is doing. But I wonder if, at least in this case, the grumbling is actually really important.

Zacchaeus’ community is naming the wrong Zacchaeus is doing. They’re voicing how their community is stressed and suffering because of it. They’re publicly calling Zacchaeus to account for the ways his actions have harmed others and especially the poor. 

And Zacchaeus responds to their complaints. He takes some significant steps to try to make things right. He makes a public commitment to engage in economic redistribution—in something like reparations. Zacchaeus engages in a kind of restorative justice, trying to make things right in his community.

Zacchaeus is not just a greedy or sinful person in some abstract sense, where he just needs to confess his sins to God and be forgiven and feel better about himself and move on. Zacchaeus has been doing things that harm his whole community.

And so, likewise, the restoration Jesus brings is not just for Zacchaeus but also for the whole community. Jesus says, today salvation has come to this house—not just to Zacchaeus as an individual but also to all of the people Zacchaeus is in economic relationship with. 

As Pat Thompson pointed out two Sundays ago, in reflecting on the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, the whole is not complete without the lost piece. And Jesus says at the end of today’s passage, the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has been lost, and the community was not complete without him. The community was not whole and healthy while Zacchaeus was still cheating and defrauding and oppressing and getting richer at the expense of others. And Jesus’ healing is for this whole community.

With this Jesus, with this kind of God, we can look up. We can receive sight. We can have hope. 

We can have courage to explore what economic redistribution might look like for us, in our communities. We can look up and see that there is enough to go around. And we can join Jesus, and join Zacchaeus’ community, in calling to account the chief tax collectors, so to speak, in our own communities. We can be hopeful that there might be some like Zacchaeus who are willing to learn to see things differently. We can be hopeful that we might see our communities restored and healed.

To dust you will return: the Good Samaritan, Martha, and Lent

Below is the text of Luke 10:25-42, followed by a brief reflection, an edited version of which is a part of my church’s Lenten devotional series. The idea of the series is to connect narrative passages from the book of Luke to Lenten ideas like lament, fasting, sorrow, repentance, and humility, and to reflect on the questions people ask in the text as well as the questions the text might surface for us.

25  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  26  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  27  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  28  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  36  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

38  Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  39  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  40  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  41  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  42  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

As I think about Luke 10:25-42—the story of the Good Samaritan, and then Martha’s interaction with Jesus—in light of the season of Lent, I think about the traditional words of Ash Wednesday: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. With these words we acknowledge our human mortality, how fragile and vulnerable and brief our lives are. 

I see this to dust you will return vulnerability in the man beaten by robbers and left half dead. I see it in the way the priest and the Levite pass him by.

I’ve often assumed that the man was left unconscious, but as I read the story again, I wonder if we are meant to imagine him watching, injured and helpless, as one religious leader and then another glances at him, sizes him up, decides it isn’t worth getting involved, crosses the road, and keeps walking. Sometimes being abandoned and ignored in our distress is a kind of secondary trauma every bit as weighty as the original wounds.

In Lent, we remember that we, too, are vulnerable. Sometimes we are the ones who show mercy; sometimes we are the ones whose vulnerability calls forth mercy in others. We are all neighbors to one another, God’s children together—in need of mercy, and invited to be merciful.

I also see this to dust you will return vulnerability in Martha’s question to Jesus: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Jesus, don’t you see the things that overwhelm me with anxiety? The people I feel let down by? The difficulty of changing anything, or of even hoping that something might change? The powerlessness I feel?

These are vulnerable, honest questions. And I think Jesus loves them. When he replies, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing, perhaps he is not so much reproaching Martha as inviting her to let go of some of the many weights she has been carrying, and instead to find one thing—just one next good thing—to do, and do it. Maybe this is how Martha learns to love herself, so she can then love her neighbor as herself.

What vulnerable, human, difficult, honest, messy, beautiful questions have surfaced for us in the midst of the various kinds of to dust you will return vulnerability we have experienced in the last year or so? How can we choose to lean into these questions together in this season of Lent (and beyond)?

(Feel free to name your questions or other reactions in the comments!)

Always Reforming: a short sermon on Luke 6:1-16

I’m thankful to have had another opportunity to give a short sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church (aka “Lake B”). If you prefer a video version, here’s the church service. My part starts around 35:14, but David (before) and Miguel (after) are very much worth listening to if you have a few minutes.

Here’s the passage, and the sermon! Please feel free to holler in the comments section if you have thoughts. I’d love to hear any ways you resonate with this, how you think about tradition and faith, if there are any particular traditions you see a need to re-think, etc.

Luke 6:1-16 (NRSV):

6 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

In one of my first classes in seminary, I was totally mind-blown to learn that early Protestants during the Reformation had this motto: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—meaning, “a reformed church will always be reforming.” In other words, the Reformers knew that the things they wanted to change about the church back in the 1500s were not the only things that were ever going to need to change. Semper reformanda. Always reforming.

This was mind-blowing to me because, before seminary, I had been part of a more conservative church tradition, where sometimes it felt like the church was very resistant to changing anything at all. Sometimes it felt like faithfulness meant staying true to the teachings of the people—in this case, the white men in the 1950s—who had founded the church.

In our passage this morning, in Luke 6, we see Jesus engaging his own religious tradition, and we see him challenging the ways it’s being interpreted by some of its leaders. 

I think it’s interesting to watch these religious leaders, the Pharisees, in this passage. It’s interesting to see how they interact with Jesus, and how Jesus interacts with them. 

At this point, Jesus is traveling around. He’s teaching and healing. He’s got a ragtag little crew of random people following him. They’re not even the slightly more organized group of twelve apostles, yet. We don’t get that until verses 12-16, at the end of our passage.

But, even at this early point in Jesus’ ministry, he’s begun to attract the attention of some of the powers that be. Spoiler alert: it’s not positive attention. 

In the last couple of stories in Luke 5, right before this passage, the Pharisees are unhappy about the company Jesus keeps. They ask, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? They’re kind of the worst. And he says, I didn’t come for the healthy, but the sick. Then, right after that, the Pharisees complain that their own followers fast, and John the Baptist’s followers fast, but Jesus’ followers are eating and drinking. And Jesus says, Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is here with them? Then he talks about how new garments can’t be used to patch up old ones, and new wine can’t be poured into old wineskins. 

The religious leaders want to hold onto the things that are old, but Jesus is doing something new. And, just to be clear, it’s not about Judaism being old and Christianity being new. Both are living traditions. Both are still being interpreted and understood in different ways with each new generation. It’s not a comparison between religions here; it’s a tension within one tradition. It’s a tension between holding onto particular ways of understanding what this tradition means, and being open to something new that God might be doing. Being open to something that challenges previous understandings of what it meant to be faithful.

So here we are, with lots of people starting to follow Jesus around to learn from him…and some religious leaders also following him around, but for different reasons.

They start off asking him a question. Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath? Jesus takes this at face value, as if it’s an honest question and they really want to know the answer. He tells them a story, appealing to the holy scriptures that they all share in common, and appealing to the memory of their famous ancestral king David that they all share in common. The religious leaders don’t answer.

Then, on another Sabbath, we meet the man with the withered hand. And the religious leaders are back again—still watching, still standing on the sidelines with their arms folded. This time, they don’t say anything. They don’t ask any questions. They don’t even pretend that they actually want to know why Jesus is doing what he’s doing. They don’t even try to look like they think they might possibly have something to learn from him. They just silently watch and look for something they might accuse him of, as v. 7 tells us. Jesus reads their minds, because he does that, and he asks them to reconsider: he asks them, Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it? And then he heals the person who needs healing.

We’ve seen the religious leaders progress from asking Jesus questions, to not even bothering to engage, but just quietly looking for something to accuse him of—and now, they’ve progressed to being furious. This word here in verse 11, often translated “furious” or “filled with fury,” might also be translated as “madness” or “folly.” It’s not necessarily just anger. In one phrasing, it’s “madness expressing itself in rage.” It’s a flammable combination of ignorance and anger. 

All Jesus did was let his disciples eat, and then heal someone who needed healing. All he has done are good things—the kind of things that should be non-controversial, non-partisan, just basic human rights kinds of things. 

And then we get this huge, disproportionate backlash from the religious leaders. They’re filled with this “madness expressing itself in rage.” 

Our passage here, in verse 11, says that the religious leaders start “discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus.” That might sound a bit ambiguous, but there are a couple passages very similar to this one, in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, that put it more clearly. Those passages say that the religious leaders began plotting how they might kill Jesus.

Jesus fed, and healed. And then the powers that be turn irrationally violent against him. Because, of course, Jesus wasn’t just feeding. He wasn’t just healing. He was messing with their systems. He was messing with the way they were used to seeing things. He was messing with their sense of control and authority. 

He was re-framing the tradition of Sabbath. He was re-interpreting the purpose of the Sabbath: that it’s meant for people’s flourishing, and not for restriction or deprivation. In a very similar passage in the gospel of Mark, Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

The Sabbath was made for people. And not just for some people, but for all people. Jesus sees his tradition as flexible and changeable if at any point it becomes clear that it’s not working for everybody. Everybody, including people who are hungry, including people who are sick; including, as we see throughout Luke’s gospel, people who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. Really, everybody.

Sometimes we, too, might find that the ways we’re used to reading Scripture, the people we’ve been trained to look up to as religious authorities, the books we’ve been given to read, the theologians and theologies we’ve inherited—aren’t actually working for us. Or, if they are working for us, that they’re not actually working for everybody. When this happens, we, too, have freedom to improvise. We have freedom to reinterpret, to take another look. Freedom to listen to different voices. To listen to one another. To listen to our own spirits within us. 

We have freedom to be part of this reality of the church that is semper reformanda through the generations: always reforming, always needing re-examining, always needing us to bring our hearts and brains and experiences and full selves to its interpretation. 

We follow a God who is always inviting us to weigh what’s lawful, what’s traditional, against what is good—and, when these things conflict, to choose what is good. We follow a God who is always calling us to choose to save life and not destroy it. This is what Sabbath is about. This is what Jesus is about. We belong to this Jesus, to a faith that is for everyone’s flourishing, to a living tradition, always reforming.

Marginalized Women, Bold Prophetic Speech: an Advent sermon on Elizabeth & Mary

I guess I’ve thought for a little while now that Luke 1:39-45 is a pretty awesome Bible passage. I wrote about it a little bit last December, in this post, toward the end of “25 Days of John the Baptist.”

This is the text (in the NRSV):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on this passage at Inglewood Presbyterian Church in Kirkland, WA, as part of a series called “Christmas from the Margins.” It was great to have an excuse to dig into the text a lot more. I feel like good things came out of it for me, and I share the sermon here in case good things come out of it for you too! I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the Comments section.

__

I understand that this Advent season you all are exploring the idea of “Christmas from the Margins.” I love that―both in general, and because I think all of the challenges of 2020 have impacted and maybe changed how a lot of us think about marginalization. 

Some of us may have experienced being on the margins ourselves in new ways―a sense of being pushed to the edge of a kind of stable center we used to have―whether that’s through disrupted plans, or isolation, or fear and anxiety, or sickness, or the sickness of loved ones, or the loss of loved ones, or through job loss and unemployment. 

The last few months have also brought movements toward racial justice and against white supremacy to the forefront of national attention. We’ve seen―highlighted, and made more visible for more people―some of what it’s like to be racially marginalized as a person of color in the US.

This is 2020. This is where we’re at. And these are the kinds of things I hope we can keep in mind as we think about our story this morning, and as we begin this Advent season.

__

By the time we get to our passage this morning, a lot has happened already. 

An angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, while he’s serving as a priest in the temple. The angel says, you and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and you should name him John. Zechariah says, wha? No way, man, we’re both way too old! (Which, to be fair, is totally true. Some scholars think they must have been in their sixties.) But the angel says, this is going to happen, and, because you didn’t believe it, you won’t get to speak again until the baby is born. And Zechariah says…well, nothing. Because he can’t.

Then, about six months later, the same angel appears to Mary―not to Mary’s fiancé, or father, or any other male authority figure in her world, but to Mary―and says, you are going to have a son, and you should name him Jesus. Mary says, how, since I am a virgin? The angel says, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit! And Mary says, okay. Let it be as you say

__

Can you imagine being Mary, here? An angel just appears to you, out of nowhere, just about gives you a heart attack…and then tells you, don’t be afraid. The angel says that you―you, in your small town in the middle of nowhere; in your youth, as a teenager; in your vulnerability and insignificance as a young woman who is not yet married or a mother, which would have given you a little more status in your world―you are going to miraculously give birth to a king, to the holy one who will be called the Son of God.

Talk about a disruption of the normal, humble life you planned on living―making life work, alongside your husband-to-be, in the midst of poverty; surviving together under the thumb of the Roman Empire; living faithfully to God, as well as you can, in your own quiet way. 

What do you do with this kind of life-disrupting news? Who do you talk to, about the angel and the miraculous pregnancy, and everything? Who do you go to, there in your small hometown, full of people who tend to expect things like pregnancy to work in the usual way?

__

Mary remembers that the angel told her that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So, Mary sets off to visit Elizabeth. This is where we find ourselves in the story this morning. 

Mary grabs a water bottle and a granola bar, types in “Judean hill country” in Google Maps on her iPhone, hops in her parents’ trusty old Subaru, and heads off toward Elizabeth’s place. 

Just kidding. In reality her journey to the hill country of Judea was a slow one. It likely lasted around three to five days, depending on where exactly Elizabeth lived. The roads were known to be dangerous, full of robbers. My hope is that she found a caravan she could travel with that would help keep her safe. Regardless, it took courage to go off on her own like that, apart from her family and fiancé and hometown community. 

She must have felt it was necessary. I imagine her thinking, this is all so wild, and unexpected, and incredible, and awesome, and terrifying, and good, and very complicated. I don’t know if anyone will understand. But if anyone could, maybe it’s Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous pregnancy. 

It was the only thing to do.

People on the margins are often people on the move. Taking risks, seeking safe places to stay, seeking compassionate communities who will welcome them. And God is with them as they do so. God is with those who, like Mary, find themselves desperate enough to make dangerous journeys― not quite sure what they will find on the other side, but knowing that they have to go.

__

So Mary arrives, enters the house, and greets Elizabeth with the usual type of greeting. 

Elizabeth does not give a usual greeting back. There’s no what’s up?? So good to see you! Long time no see! Or whatever they said in those days.

Instead, Elizabeth cries out loudly: you are blessed among women! And the fruit of your womb is blessed too! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said would happen.

Immediately after Elizabeth says all this, Mary launches into a beautiful, prophetic poem that we might know as the Magnificat. It’s all about God lifting up the humble―those on the margins―and bringing down powerful people who are proud. It’s about God being full of mercy, from generation to generation, doing mighty things, filling up the hungry, being faithful, keeping promises.

__

When I read this story, and I think about the idea of Christmas from the margins, I think about the very patriarchal, very male-dominated world that Mary and Elizabeth lived in. 

Because she is a woman, Elizabeth is not a priest like her husband Zechariah―even though she is the daughter of a priest. She’s descended from the line of Aaron (Luke tells us this, earlier in the story, in v. 5). If Elizabeth had been around the temple area when Zechariah was chosen by lot among the priests to be the one to go inside, she would have had to stay outside, in a court called the Court of Women, which was where women could go to pray. It was outside the Court of Israel, where the men could go to pray. The worshipping women were physically distanced from the temple because of their gender―very literally pushed to the margins of the place that was considered holy.

We also see, earlier in the story, that Elizabeth was the one who was blamed for her and Zechariah’s childlessness. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, The Lord has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (that’s in v. 25). For her, infertility was not only a source of sadness, and disappointment, and vulnerability in old age, but also a social disgrace. It was a source of unending shame that followed her around throughout her adult life, even into her sixties. 

Many people likely assumed that her infertility was caused by some sort of sin in her life. What was wrong with her, that she had never been able to have a baby? What awful thing had she done? People must have given her the side-eye and whispered behind her back. Maybe in her darker moments Elizabeth whispered these things to herself, too. What is wrong with me? Maybe she internalized the blame and shame that others kept placing on her.

We also see evidence of women being pushed to the margins in their world within this passage itself. Verse 40 tells us that Mary entered the house of Zechariah. The house was considered Zechariah’s property only, even though both he and Elizabeth lived there. 

Lest we think this world is so far removed from our own, remember that it wasn’t until the mid 1970s in the US that women were allowed to have our own credit cards, and to buy our own houses without facing blatant and totally legal discrimination because of our gender.

__

In the midst of this male-dominated world, this scene, where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, is incredible. It’s a man’s world, but there are no men to be found here. Zechariah is who knows where. The baby boys John and Jesus have not been born yet. It’s just a raw, unfiltered, real, beautiful, human interaction between two female relatives, one older, one younger.

In a world where women are supposed to disappear into the background, Mary and Elizabeth take up space. They take up space in Luke’s narrative. They take up space in the story of Jesus, in the story of God’s love and redemption in the world. 

They are an important part of the story―not just because of the sons they will give birth to, but in their own right too. They are examples of faithfulness, of believing God, of working with God, of participating in the joy of what God is doing. 

And they must have found so much comfort in their time together. Mary ended up staying for three months, until Elizabeth’s son John was born. 

When we talk about Christmas, we often talk about Jesus as “Immanuel,” as God with us. Sometimes “God with us” can look like another person coming into our life and being a source of comfort and encouragement. Someone who has walked or is walking some of the same roads that we are. Someone who understands. Someone who can, just by being there, remind us of God’s presence with us.

__

When the sound of Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears, little John the Baptist does a little jump inside Elizabeth’s tummy. Elizabeth interprets this as a jump for joy, or in exultation.

Elizabeth, then, is filled with the Holy Spirit. This exact language―being “filled with the Holy Spirit”―is only used a few other times in the New Testament. It’s used when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit himself, later on in this chapter, and he speaks his own prophetic poem, a few verses after Mary’s. Later on, the group of believers at Pentecost in the book of Acts are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them. Peter and Paul are each described as being filled with the Holy Spirit in some parts of Acts, particularly when they have something especially bold and risky to say.

Elizabeth, here, joins the ranks of people―of men―like John the Baptist, and Zechariah, and Peter, and Paul. She is filled with the same Spirit. And she, too, speaks boldly. She speaks in a loud and confident voice. 

The Greek actually uses three different words here to express how intense her voice is as she speaks: she “exclaims”―meaning that she spoke out, or cried aloud. Her voice is “loud”―or, literally, “great.” 

And it sounds like a “cry.” This is a word that can also be translated as outcry, or clamor. This word is actually used by Paul when he writes to the Ephesian Christians that they should try to stay away from anger, and malice, and brawling, and clamor, and that sort of thing (that’s in Ephesians 4:31). 

It’s a fighting kind of cry―a loud, great, clamour. And, in Elizabeth’s case, it’s holy. It’s full of the Holy Spirit. It’s bold and prophetic and true and important…and very, very unladylike. 

While Zechariah, the priest, is at this point still unable to speak, Elizabeth, not allowed to be priest because of her gender, speaks loudly.

Women, as well as others on the margins, are often socialized to just get along. We’re told, in a million different ways, don’t make waves, don’t be too loud, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t stir up trouble, don’t make anyone upset. Hold your tongue, speak gently and quietly, defer to others, defer to men.

Add to all this the shame Elizabeth’s community has burdened her with. People use shame to push people to the margins, and to keep them there. To make them feel like their marginalization is somehow their fault. To keep them from speaking up. 

When the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, Elizabeth breaks out of all of these confines of what is considered respectable behavior. She has something important to say. She has prophecy to speak. She has inexpressible joy to try to express. And she doesn’t have time to take a step back and make sure her voice is gentle enough and her words are inoffensive enough and nothing she says is threatening to anyone.

__

Maybe it’s jarring to think about Elizabeth in this way. Or, maybe, if you’re someone who feels marginalized in some of the same ways she was, maybe it’s freeing and healing. Maybe it’s a bit of both. 

Maybe for some of us, we’re thinking, yes! Speak up! Speak your truth! Embrace your empowerment by the Holy Spirit! You’re awesome! 

And yet, is that how we see voices from the margins today, who speak boldly as Elizabeth did, full of truth and fire and a longing for justice? How open are we to hearing from the marginalized prophets and prophetesses of our time? 

Do we expect them to conform to some sort of respectable standard before we’re willing to listen? Do we bristle and get defensive because some of them are too loud, or too angry, for our taste?

Elizabeth’s bold speech invites us to pay attention to who might be filled with the Holy Spirit, to who might be speaking prophetic words, around us in our world today. 

__

And, the words that Elizabeth speaks, so loudly, after being filled by the Holy Spirit―these words are a series of blessings. You have been blessed, Mary, among women. The fruit of your womb has been blessed. Blessed is the one who believed.

Elizabeth, who wasn’t allowed to be a priest, embodies the priestly role of pronouncing blessing, of calling Mary blessed. She recognizes God’s incredible work in Mary’s life and names it as such.

Who do we tend to imagine, or assume, are the people who get to proclaim blessings? Who gets to be in that powerful and joyful position of saying with confidence: God is with you, God blesses you? 

Pastors? Powerful people? Influential people? Respectable people? 

Do we hope and expect to hear blessings from the mouths of people on the margins? Can we receive those blessings? 

Do we expect that people on the margins have something to offer us―that there are ways we can learn from them, even as we might also see their needs and try to serve them? Are we open to the wisdom they have, the things they can teach us? 

And, in the ways in which we might experience marginalization―whether from gender, or race, or ethnicity, or unemployment, or disability, or sexual orientation, or anything else―do we see ourselves as empowered to be a blessing, to bless others? Do we see ourselves as people who can speak boldly and call forth the best in others? 

As Kathy Khang writes in her book Raise Your Voice, “Elizabeth is unafraid and generous in her word of blessing and exhortation. I imagine that’s because she knows what I often have to remind myself: finding and using our voice isn’t a zero-sum game where we compete with others. Elizabeth isn’t competing. She knows this is a journey for both of them, and she sets the stage for Mary to speak out words we now call the Magnificat. Elizabeth isn’t there just to provide an audience or to be a foil or competitor. She’s the one whose presence and words remind Mary who she is and what is to come.”

Isn’t it beautiful, when we can do this for one another? 

Blessing people isn’t just for some subset of extra holy or powerful people. It’s something all of us can do.

And, blessing one another isn’t just for the times when everything is easy, and things are going well. It’s for the difficult times too. 

Elizabeth and Mary did not live easy, comfortable, happy ever after kinds of lives. Living in poverty as a religious minority in the Roman empire was no easy thing. Add to that the task of raising children who will both end up being killed as revolutionaries. Elizabeth and Mary lived difficult lives in difficult times.

Many of us in 2020 have not had a particularly easy, comfortable, happy ever after kind of year either. And yet, even in these times―maybe especially in these times―we can bless one another. We can call forth the best in one another. We can be present with and be a comfort to one another, as Mary and Elizabeth were. We can remind each other, this Advent season, of God’s presence with us.

And, we can seek out and listen to the prophetic voices from the margins. God is still speaking through them. We can hear their challenging, blessing, life-giving, world-altering, disruptive, uncomfortable words. We can receive and respond to the ways they are inviting us toward justice and goodness and wholeness, as people, as the church, and as a society. We can echo and amplify their voices to people we know who might not listen to them, but might listen to us.

May we receive the gifts and the challenges of Christmas from the margins this Advent season.

Elizabeth’s Pregnancy

This is not a pregnancy announcement :D.

It’s not really a full blog post either.

I was thinking about writing something about Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. After all, it’s almost Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus―and Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and Mary’s were closely connected.

I love the story Luke tells about Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth, when Mary had just become pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy with John the Baptist:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45)

I love that John’s mother was something of a prophet in her own right. The Holy Spirit filled her, and she spoke: words of blessing, words of foretelling, words of wisdom. Words of humility and wonder and hope and joy and faith.

I also love what Mary said in response:

My soul exalts the Lord,
and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
(Luke 1:46-55)

Good things happen when women speak and write and preach and make poetry! I love that Elizabeth’s words of blessing called forth these brave and beautiful words from Mary.

I also love that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months after that (Luke 1:56). These two women from two different generations showed up for each other and supported one another in a time when there weren’t too many other people who would or could understand what God was doing in their lives.

Mostly, though, I just wanted to share a link to an article about Elizabeth’s pregnancy that I thought was interesting. It’s written by Lara Freidenfelds, who is a historian of health, reproduction, and pregnancy, and has spent fifteen years writing a book about miscarriage.

I love it when people with expertise in all sorts of different (non-theology) subject areas bring all of their intelligence and years of study into their reading of the Bible and share what they think.

I also love it when women speak and write on the women of the Bible (as well as just in general).

So Dr. Freidenfelds’ article is cool. I hope you enjoy it. (If not now, because Christmas Eve and family and everything, then maybe bookmark it for later :).)

Merry Christmas Eve!

John and the Military

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
(Luke 3:14)

In yesterday’s post I reflected a bit on how John the Baptist’s words to soldiers might relate to present-day law enforcement. Today I want to share a couple of thoughts about the soldier soldier aspect of it. What, if anything, do John’s instructions for Roman soldiers have to do with modern-day militaries and wars?

A few years ago, I found myself talking with a pastor about things like US foreign policy and military violence, and whether or in what ways Christians should or shouldn’t participate in a military machine that has done and continues to do a lot of bad things. The pastor brought up Luke 3:14.

It was my first exposure to what turns out to be a common argument, which goes something like this: when Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist―and we all know that the Roman army did all sorts of bad things―John did not tell them to quit their jobs. He just gave them instructions as to how they should operate within their current roles. Therefore, John did not (and likewise God does not) disapprove of war itself or of the military itself, and it is okay for Christians to participate―as long as they’re good and moral within their roles.

I wasn’t quite convinced by the argument, but I also wasn’t sure how to respond.

Fortunately, though, during my second quarter of seminary, I got to take a whole class called Biblical and Practical Peacemaking, taught by Ron Sanders. And now I know everything!

Just kidding. But the class was really great, and I did learn a lot. I was exposed to different perspectives on things like just war theory―a specific set of standards for determining whether entering a war is just, and for limiting the injustices done both during that war and after it ends―and pacifism―the view that participating in the violence of war is never necessary or justifiable.

One perspective I found really helpful is from a book called Just Peacemaking, edited by Glen Stassen (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008). In this book’s introduction, the authors argue that, while debates between just war theory and pacifism are not unimportant, there are actually a lot of peace-making practices that we can all agree on, even though we might still deeply disagree about the high-level question of whether or not war is ever right or moral.

Does the fact that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs in the army imply, as some believe, that John was not a pacifist? Maybe. Maybe not. We can debate about it, and there are all sorts of other Scripture passages and experiences and other pieces of evidence we could bring in to fuel that debate.

Stassen et al.’s Just Peacemaking book helped me understand that we do not have to resolve all of these disagreements―we do not have to all be on the same page about just war theory and pacifism―before we seek together to move toward practices of just peacemaking. 

We can debate these things as much as we want―and we can bring John the Baptist into it as much as we want, although I suspect that he would want no such thing―but at the end of the day, the likelihood that we will all convince one another and get on the same page at any time in the foreseeable future seems pretty small.

But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe we can move forward together, as Stassen suggests, by asking different kinds of questions together. Questions like: What practices have been historically shown to actually decrease the likelihood of war and the amount of violence in the world? What are the tangible ways in which we can “promote justice and cooperation in a world whose wars are immeasurably destructive” (p. 17)?

According to Stassen et al., “peace, like war, must be waged” (p. 21). There are proactive peace-making measures we can and must take―both for just war theorists, who, at their best, are committed to trying all other possible conflict resolutions before resorting to war, and for pacifists, who, at their best, are committed not only to refuse participation in war but also to actively pursue peace and justice.

John the Baptist didn’t operate within the categories of just war theory or pacifism. These things were developed later.

What John did want was for the Roman soldiers to know that, within the positions they did hold in the military, what they did and did not do mattered. There were things they could do that would increase the violence and awfulness of war, and there were things they could do that would decrease the violence and awfulness of war.

On an individual level, the soldiers could resist the temptation to capitalize on the power available to them through their position or their weapons to take advantage of others (similar to my reflections on law enforcement from yesterday’s post). 

And, on a broader, societal scale, perhaps the soldiers could consider whether the wars in which they were asked to participate may or may not involve extorting money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and/or involve not being satisfied with your wages. After all, it is not only individuals who extort and threaten and falsify, but armies and nation-states as well. It is not only individuals who are not always satisfied with their wages―or their current level of national wealth―but countries as well.
Nations sometimes wage war for the sake of self-protection or because they hope it will serve larger humanitarian causes in the end; other times, they wage war out of a thinly veiled desire to extort (or otherwise extract) money from other countries, often employing false accusations to justify their aggression and violence, drumming up public support on false premises.

It is no secret that the US has been involved in plenty of these latter sorts of wars. I think of the Bush administration’s appeal to the public’s fears of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. I think of the recently released Afghanistan papers, which reveal some of the extent of the falsehoods told to the American public about a war that has proven mind-boggling-ly long and costly. 

I’m still not entirely sure what I would have said to the pastor who brought up Luke 3:14 as an argument that the Bible is not particularly pacifist. I might suggest, though, that we allow John’s words to prompt some deep soul-searching―soul-searching not just on the part of individual members of the armed forces but also for all of us who live in a military superpower nation that does not always use its powers for good. 
I might also suggest that we take some of the energy we tend to spend on arguments about just war theory and pacifism and re-direct it toward proactive practices that help build a more just and peaceful world―a world with fewer threats, less extortion, fewer false accusations, and more contentment with our (personal and national) wages.

John and the Long Arm of the Law

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
(Luke 3:14)

This third group of people who come to John the Baptist asking, what then should we do? gets an answer that I want to reflect on from two angles.

The first has to do with law enforcement. The second (which I’ll save for tomorrow) has to do with the military.

I imagine Roman soldiers functioning basically as human extensions of the authority of the Roman emperor, into the farthest corners of Roman-occupied territory. The long arm of the law, if you will.

I imagine they had a fair amount of power, and people kind of had to do what they said. I imagine they carried swords―and that if they were here in the US today, they would carry guns.

It’s not hard to imagine that there probably wasn’t great accountability for those soldiers who decided to abuse their power against civilians. There probably weren’t a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure they didn’t do things like extort money from people by threats or false accusation. If these were the first things that came to mind for John when the soldiers asked, what then should we do, they must have been common practices.

Fortunately for us, modern-day law enforcement officers never abuse their power in these sorts of ways, so we can’t really relate.

Just kidding.

When I think about Roman soldiers making threats and false accusations against people, I think about police officers who frame black and brown people for things like drug possession and send them to jail (often extorting money via bail in the process). A quick Google search for an example brought up this particularly egregious and obvious case―for which there was some accountability, but only slightly subtler things like this happen all the time, often with no accountability.

I think about police officers who make excuses for their own (or their colleagues’) unwarranted, excessive, and often racially-based violence, by defaming the character of the person against whom the violence was inflicted, or by falsely claiming that the person had a weapon, or that there was a good reason to assume they had a weapon. John says, do not make false accusations.

I think about law enforcement officers who betray the people they are meant to serve, by working with, rather than against, organized crime groups. This recent podcast from This American Life tells a horrifying and sickening story about a Central American man who was turned away from the US border upon trying to claim asylum. Along with fellow turned-away asylum seekers, the man was taken to the Mexican immigration office, after which a Mexican immigration officer picked everyone up and drove them all to a bus stop―and then sat in his car and watched while the asylum seekers were picked up not by a bus but by cartel members in a van who drove them to an unknown location and held them for ransom. Later on, when the man’s sister sent money to the kidnappers for his release, she was asked to wire this money to the account number of the Mexican immigration officer. John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats.

Of course, things are complicated, and cartels are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to blame the Mexican immigration officer too easily, or alone. Let’s not forget the complicity of the US immigration agents at the border who, under instructions from Trump’s administration, by default turn away people who are legitimately fleeing for their lives. And, as the This American Life podcast mentions, by releasing people at the border in large groups at a predictable time of day, US agents make these people unnecessarily vulnerable and obvious targets for exploitation.

History and present-day experience are full of people doing normally-unconscionable things, simply because they are told to by their superiors. Stanley Milgram did a famous social psychology experiment in the 1960s with disturbing results to this effect. He had an authority figure (a scientific researcher) instruct participants to administer larger and larger shocks to a person in an adjacent room and found that about two-thirds of participants obeyed the authority figure and administered shocks large enough that (had they been real) they would have likely killed the person in the other room.

Milgram’s intent was to investigate how the Holocaust could have happened, with so many otherwise ordinary citizens participating in it in various ways; his conclusion was that most people will do very bad things if someone else who they believe has legitimate authority is telling them to do it, and if they believe that that person will take responsibility for the consequences.

John the Baptist says, don’t do these things. In the situation you’re in, with the power that you have―and sometimes in spite of all of the other powers you might be under―follow your conscience. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it might cost you your job (as it did for one of the immigration agents interviewed by This American Life). Do the right thing anyway.

John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. For all of us―and especially for people who, like the Roman soldiers of John’s day, find themselves in situations where harming others is easy and peers and supervisors either turn a blind eye or push them toward doing harm―do good and not evil to the people you are meant to serve and protect.

Do good and not evil, even if you can do evil and get away with it, with someone else taking responsibility for your actions. Even if you can do evil and it doesn’t really feel like you’re causing someone harm, because that harm is indirect, or happens far away from you. Even if everyone else in the department or agency is doing evil. Even if your supervisor specifically tells you to do evil.

I don’t intend this as an anti-law-enforcement post. There are so many law enforcement officers who serve their communities well, and sacrificially, often facing high risks and bearing high costs in their own wellbeing. John isn’t against the soldiers. He doesn’t call them a brood of vipers, or say away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7:23), or anything like that. He says, bear good fruit―and for you in particular, given your position in society, that means protect people and don’t exploit them.

Hopefully, for those in law enforcement or similar kinds of positions who are already doing these things, John’s words are comforting: you’re doing the right thing. Keep at it. Be encouraged and strengthened in it. I want everyone to do what you’re doing. It is possible.

May we be thankful for the many people in law enforcement who serve their communities well, while also following John’s lead in calling unapologetically for an end to all kinds of exploitative practices, racism, dishonesty, violence, and other evils. 

Evangelical Pastor John

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)

I’m trying to imagine John the Baptist preaching in a typical US evangelical church today.

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?