Making Honest Christians of Ourselves

baptist-greco2They came to St. John seeking guidance. They wanted him to tell them how to live right. [Spanish]

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.

GodzillaSt. 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.

The Christ will Winnow

Afghanistan-Winnowing

When the Christ comes, what will He do?

We read that the people were filled with expectation. They had no real doubt that the Christ would indeed come. But they did not exactly have a crystal-clear idea of what would happen when He did. In fact, as we read, they wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ.

After all, the Christ might just do things like John the Baptist did: Tell people to deal honestly and fairly with each other. To share their largesse with those in need. To live decent, humble lives. God-fearing people live that way, after all. Always have.

Maybe the Christ would baptize people with water, when they repented of their sins– like John did.

We know that the Jews of that time had a number of different ideas about what the Messiah might be like. Maybe a great military man, a commander-in-chief, a liberator. Maybe an imperial ruler.

baptist-greco2Now, no one could mistake John the Baptist for the regal kind of Messiah, or the military kind. But John had the trappings of a third possible kind of Messiah. People easily mistook him for the austere kind of Messiah. The prophetic kind. The monkish kind.

Out in the desert, separated from the nonsense of cosmopolitan life. Living on locusts and wild honey, in total contrast with the gluttonous hypocrites who ran Jerusalem. In a cynical world, John preached repentance and a fresh start at living a holy life.

We can understand the mistake, then, when people began to believe that John was the Christ. But John set them straight. He did not say, “You think I’m the Messiah? Well… I’m flattered…” No, John said, “You have mistaken me. I baptize with water. He will baptize with Spirit and fire.”

Now, literally baptizing people with fire? Could prove highly painful. So St. John must have meant something spiritual with these words of his. The Messiah will not simply preach a just and true doctrine, like the Baptist preached. The real Christ, Jesus, preached a doctrine that penetrates to the center of the human soul and purifies it.

If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other cheek as well. If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also. If someone asks you for money, give, and do not expect repayment. Your reward will be great in heaven. The poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the hungry, and the persecuted will inherit a Kingdom, a kingdom greater than any of the kingdoms of the earth.

Really? The people wondered. They wondered at the idea that the Messiah could be even more of a mind-blower than John the Baptist was. The doctrine of the Christ involved not just an exhortation to live a God-fearing life. It involved a promise about a completely new kind of life to come.

So they asked St. John a reasonable question: What will the Christ do?

The man of consummate gravity said: Look. I am nothing. I am a breath of air. I am a feather floating on the wind, compared to the One Who is to come. The Christ does not simply preach the truth. He is the Truth. He judges all. Christ wields the great winnowing fan, and He gathers His wheat into His barn.

Christ with winnowing fanWith this image, St. John the Baptist has given us one of the great keys for making sense out of life. This world, this pilgrim life, is a threshing floor.

What is “winnowing?” It’s so simple that the Wikipedia article about it has only one paragraph. Chaff has no real substance. It will blow away in the wind. When the winnowing fan beats the air, the chaff blows off, and only the meaty grain remains on the threshing floor.

The Christ of God comes with the winnowing fan of truth in His hand. The truth of divine love. He will judge everything according to the criterion of the Father’s love.

But that’s not the whole image. The Christ wields a winnowing fan for a reason. Because He has a barn. He has a place to put the meaty grain, after the chaff gets separated and burnt.

This pilgrim life involves one big separation. The omnipotent winnowing fan separates beauty from ugliness, good from evil, enduring life from fleeting ephemera. Every good choice we make adds to our substance. Every sin dissipates us more and more, towards the weightlessness of chaff. We don’t want to blow away, in the end. We want to have weight, the weight of God’s goodness. Because the winnowing process does not last forever. Eventually, Christ will completely separate good from evil…

Then: A barn, of a crisp evening. Raking the stables. The smell of the hearth fire burning in the house nearby. Peace. An end to striving, struggling, and fighting. Just home, the comfort of our true home, with God.