the book Debt:
The First 5,000 Years,
David Graeber writes,
one is on sociable terms with someone, it’s hard to completely ignore
their situation. Merchants often reduce prices for the needy. This
is one of the main reasons why shopkeepers in poor neighborhoods are
almost never of the same ethnic group as their customers; it would be
almost impossible for a merchant who grew up in the neighborhood to
make money, as they would be under constant pressure to give
financial breaks, or at least easy credit terms, to their
impoverished relatives and school chums.”1
intrigues me about the “good news” of the John the Baptist is
that he completely ignores this universal reality. He speaks with
the same expectations and demand to everyone, regardless of their
relationships to each other. He is calling people back into
community, and they aren’t even community!
starts out being sort of nasty, I tried to wiggle out of preaching
this text because I rather dislike the brood of vipers language, but
upon examination he is saying radically loving things. (I have come,
rather despite myself, to really like John the Baptism. It turns out
most of my assumptions about him have proven entirely untrue.) John
calls on all the people to change their lives, he doesn’t just ask it
of the leaders or of the wealthy. He makes the same demands on
everyone who comes.
the crowds who have gathered, he demands a morality of sharing. No
one should have two coats while anyone has none. This is a standard
that makes a lot of sense, right? It isn’t trivial though. The
person who has two coats may feel as if they’ve2
earned them, or they really like them, or they are aware of the
differing fashion needs they respond to!! They may feel that they
aren’t their brother’s keeper, or that there are too many people
without coats to have the coatless be their responsibility.
is, they may not experience the other person as an extension of
themselves. In functional families, it would not go that way. If
there were 4 people and 4 coats, the distribution would not be such
that 2 people and 2 coats and 2 people had no coats. In a functional
family, 4 coats for 4 people would be distributed 1 coat per person.
Calling on people to give away extra coats, and extra food, is
calling on them to take each other’s well-being as extensions of
their own. That is something we naturally do for people we love and
are in relationship to. John calls for the extension of that
community. (This is the problem I have with trying to dislike John.
He sounds like Jesus.) He calls for it to extend without limit.
the tax collectors, John also extended a challenge. His words are
no more than the amount prescribed for you.” That would, again,
be something we might expect to happen in a family. If the tax
collector came to the house of their cousin, they wouldn’t ask for
more than they were required to ask! This is an extension of
fairness to the whole community. It is treating each person as
someone you’d care about.3
final group that John is said to speak to is the soldiers. They are
probably the most interesting group. This is not because of what
John tells them, it is an extension of what he suggest to the tax
collectors: don’t take money you aren’t entitled to. What is
interesting is that they were there at all. The soldiers were Roman
soldiers. Why were they coming out to a radical Jewish prophet in
the wilderness? What was it about being part of the power structure
of the empire, or maybe even more simply about being human, that led
them to banks of the Jordan River and the preachings of the Wild One
seeking a better life? What were they expecting? Did they find it?
Did any of them follow it? Did they have a better life afterward?
challenge to the soldiers, while equivalent, may be even harder than
the rest of what John said because he calls on them to treat people
like family and they aren’t from the same group AT ALL. They are
different ethnically, and linguistically, and religiously. The
soldiers were the threat of force maintaining the empire and its
power to take wealth from the poor and transfer it to the wealthy.
John doesn’t call on them to stop being soldiers, he just calls on
them to be GOOD soldiers, and to let go of their greed, and to see
the humanity of the people they were (theoretically not) occupying.
John goes back into a statement that I find cringe worthy. He speaks
of Jesus and says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his
threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the
chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.“ This is called good
news! And it is. Christianity has done some terrible things. One
of them is assuming that there are good people and bad people and God
loves and forgives the good people while sending the bad people to
hell. Unfortunately, that’s the first thing I hear in this passage.
But I don’t think it is an appropriate reading of the passage.
Instead, I think it is consistent with the rest of the passage. As
Rev. Dr. Barbara Thorington Green says, the line between the wheat
and the chaff is not between people, it is within each of us.
is a passage of hope. God’s work includes taking away the greedy,
lifeless, selfish parts of ourselves so that we can be freed for
connection, love, and wholeness. The burning of the chaff is the
permanent removal of the things that hold us back from love, and the
making of space for love. This is a process of sanctification.
paradigm of the wheat and chaff is easily translatable into an
extension of Isaiah’s beautiful vision. In that vision, God offers
well-springs of joy for us to draw from; strength and might of the
Divine to trust in; and freedom from fear. It is a vision of joy and
week I’ve been thinking about what it means to rejoice in the midst
of the quiet waiting of Advent. I’ve also been thinking about what
it means to call for joy when there is so much pain around us. I’m
not just talking about mass shootings and Islamophobia in our
society. I’m also profoundly aware of the many in our midst who are
grieving. For some among us the wounds are fresh or unhealed. For
others the holiday season itself is a source of pain. And we live in
a broken world. Many of us, me included, have too many coats. And
far too many people have none. The relationships that lead us to
sharing and wholeness are often not present in our lives.
go back to David Gaeber, he proposes that
“sharing is not simply about morality, but also about pleasure.
Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the
most pleasurable activities almost always involve sharing something:
music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain
amount of communism of the senses at the root of most things we
He says that we tend to share best with those we consider equals.
I’m not sure that John was proposing charity at all – in the sense
that charity is a gift of undeserved love to a stranger. Instead, I
think John was proposing making people family. When that happens,
the sharing follows naturally. (This is why anyone who has ever
researched it has said that socio-economically diverse neighborhoods
are best for everyone in a society.)
comes, at least in large part, by sharing the goodness of life with
each other. Isn’t that interesting? So much of what society tells
us is simply wrong. It isn’t about acquisition or outdoing each
other. It is about the wonder of experience together. There is
plenty of sorrow and sadness to go around these days, but there are
ways to pick ourselves up to. Thanks be to God! Amen
Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years
(Brooklyn and London: Melville House, 2011), p. 102.
of this week the Washington Post style guide has approved of using
“they/them” in the singular. This is helpful both for the
transgender community and for speaking without having to name a
gender for a person. On that basis, despite some old teaching that
rankles, I’m going to follow their lead.
I will note, however, that this is historically complicated. The
system in Rome as I understand it did not involve having a pay scale
for tax collectors. Instead, they were permitted to acquire both
the taxes they’d pass on and their own income as they determined
necessary. Therefore I’m not quite sure how this would work in
practice, but let’s leave it be and hope I’m just missing something.
December 13, 2015