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.” 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.” Soldiers also asked him, “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.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”
John was preaching in the desert, a compelling word which brought all manner of people to him. We could have been among them—with our American privileges and our jobs, our houses and the graces of family, literacy, and good health. We would have seen others too: homeless people we see downtown, girls at local abortion clinics, struggling single moms, boys in detention at school, or unemployed, or on drugs, or in jail. Cops would have been there, and teachers, and health workers. Garbage collectors and micro-brewers—all asking John, man of God, “What should we do?”
John offered a baptism of repentance, an opportunity to turn towards God in a state of renewal, and he offered it for free. This was critical for those in John’s day who, faced with legal and financial burdens imposed by those in authority, couldn’t afford to offer sacrifice in the Temple and reconcile with God in that way. For us, as for them, the promise of John is an opportunity requiring nothing but willingness—no voter ID cards, no W2 forms, no annulment papers.
“What should we do?,” we ask. John speaks to us in turn: “Share what you have. Be satisfied with your lives; be grateful for your good fortune,” and “Don’t be satisfied—because systems are unjust that make comfort possible for some but not for everyone.” We listen together, hear together these instructions from God’s prophet, spoken to each group and heard by all: seek justice, be grateful. Those of us who gather around the Word are entrusted to hold each other accountable. And still, even if we ask, “What should I do? What is the work You bless for me?,” we may not know what God wants for us until we repent, until we are reconciled with expectation to the One who is coming into the world.
In this season of Advent, as we wait for Him, we join Mary in recognizing God uses our lives to bring Christ to earth. She couldn’t foresee how it would happen for her. She practically tripped over her “yes” to God—and so can we. Ever repentant, ever listening, we continue to ask, “What should I do?” If we want to know, we trip along by God’s grace and discover our unique opportunity to say, “Yes, this I can do.”
Jesus, guide us to your purpose.
The St. Mary Magdalene Dominican Laity of Raleigh