We want friendship with God, they thought to themselves. We want to practice religion honestly. We want clear consciences. We want to sleep peacefully at night. We want to have a solid foundation for our relationships. Something other than the usual routine of taking advantage of other people. Or being taken advantage of.
They thought: We don’t want to live in fear of death, judgment, and condemnation. We want to hope for a final reward, from the Lord who sees all and knows all.
So they came seeking righteousness. And St. John gave them simple, practical guidance.
The Roman soldiers had the raw power necessary to extort money from those weaker than themselves. But John said to them: ‘Look, men at arms, morality is not rocket science. Don’t do that to people; don’t take money from people who can’t fight back. Maybe all the other soldiers do it. But that doesn’t make it right.’
Likewise, the Roman tax collectors could cheat people easily. No one understood all the complex tax rules. And all the tax collectors cheated; they all lined their own pockets by bilking the poor and shorting the emperor. In the Roman empire, if you became a tax collector, it meant: You have it made! So of course you had to do all kinds of unsavory favors to get the post in the first place.
But St. John said to this notoriously corrupt group: ‘Look, morality is not that hard. Stop thinking of your position as merely a means to enrich yourselves! Just follow the rules. Don’t demand more than you should from the people. And don’t keep more than is rightly coming to you.’
Imagine! Collecting taxes for the emperor honestly. Practically unheard of. ‘But,’ St. John exhorted them, ‘you can do it. And you’ll be able to look at yourselves in the mirror.’
Integrity of life. A lot less complicated, actually, than self-interested deceit. Liars have to remember all their lies. But when we cultivate the fine art of telling the truth all the time, we don’t have to remember anything. We can say what we have to say and move on to the next thing. The facts always bear out what an honest person said.
On the other hand, a double life destroys inner peace. We all know this. If you’re slipping money into your pocket when no one is looking, then the auditor’s impending visit terrorizes your dreams. The auditor looms over a dishonest person like Godzilla.
St. John’s underlying point is this: If you lie, steal, and cheat in this life, you actually cheat yourself out of two important things:
1. Energy. Because you wind up spending a great deal of it, in the constant effort necessary to deceive other earthlings. All for no good reason, because God sees the truth anyway. He sees the whole picture, down to the minutest detail. No one can lie to Him. At least not successfully.
2. If you lie, cheat, and steal–and you do manage to obtain some benefit from it–it’s a low-stakes benefit anyway. It’s a small-time, highly temporary benefit.
More money than the Joneses? A more comfortable Jacuzzi? More likes on facebook? Compared to: The peace of communion with Truth, Goodness, and the undying Beauty that made the heavens and the earth.
As we hear in our first reading at Sunday Mass, to the honest people, with clear consciences, the prophet declares: ‘Shout for joy! Sing joyfully! The Lord has removed the judgment against you. You have no further misfortune to fear. Be not discouraged. The Lord God, a mighty savior, will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in His love.”
And St. Paul says to the honest Christians, the ones who have confessed our sins and received God’s mercy: “Brothers and sisters, rejoice! Have no anxiety at all.”
Then St. Paul adds perhaps the most-consoling assurance that can be found in the entire Bible. His words appear in the blessing which the priest gets to give at the end of a Christian funeral–when the grieving mourners have entrusted their loved one’s body to the earth, and the soul to the loving care of the heavenly Father. The priest gets to give the same blessing as St. Paul gives.
Honest Christians, brothers and sisters of pure faith and clear conscience: “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the reward of honesty, of living a simple life of fairness and respect for others. The peace that surpasses understanding.