In the Gospel this coming Sunday, the Church presents to us the great Advent figure of Saint John the Baptist, the Precursor of the Lord. His message of conversion and repentance prepared the people for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. John’s preaching is a call to us still today, a powerful call to prepare our hearts for the Lord who comes.
In the Gospel this Sunday, the crowds seem to have been moved to repentance by John the Baptist’s preaching. They responded by asking him the question: What should we do? They wanted to know what they should do to demonstrate their repentance and to be prepared to welcome the Messiah. Three times the same question was asked, by the crowds in general, by the tax collectors, and by the soldiers: What should we do?
In answering the tax collectors, John said to them: Stop collecting more than what is prescribed. In answering the soldiers, John said to them: Do not practice extortion; do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages. Basically, John is telling them to act with justice.
The tax collectors would often collect more than was due in taxes and then keep the difference for themselves. John is telling them to cease doing so and to behave honestly. He is telling them to be just. Similarly, John tells the soldiers to act with justice. Soldiers would often extort money by force and by making false charges. They would use strong arm tactics or blackmail to supplement their income. John is telling them to stop.
Both the tax collectors and the soldiers were instructed by John to show the sincerity of their repentance by being honest and acting justly. This is also an important admonition for us. We are called to act with justice in our lives.
What is justice? According to the classic formulation, it “consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor” (CCC 1807). The tax collectors and soldiers had been unjust in cheating and infringing upon the rights of other people. They were not giving them what was their due. They were unjust to their neighbors. Repentant, they asked John the Baptist what they were to do. John told them they needed to change their lives, to turn away from their corruption and to act with justice toward their neighbors.
We hear a lot about justice these days. It is an important value for society, just as it is an important moral virtue for us to practice as individuals. The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of teachings on social justice founded on respect for the human person and the rights that flow from human dignity and guarantee it. “Society ensures social justice by providing the conditions that allow associations and individuals to obtain their due” (CCC 1943). Social justice is linked to the common good.
Justice alone, however, is not sufficient. Saint John Paul II wrote: “By itself, justice is not enough. Indeed, it can even betray itself, unless it is open to that deeper power which is love.” One can say that justice “must find its fulfillment in love.” The essence of the Gospel and of Christianity is not mere justice: it is merciful love, God’s merciful love revealed in Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of this Sunday, there is a third group that asks John the Baptist what should we do? This group is simply identified as “the crowds.” I think John’s answer gets to the deeper call, the call to mercy and love. He says: Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise. One could argue that this is actually “being just” to the poor, but it is something more than just giving the person his/her due. It is showing mercy to the other. It is an act of solidarity with one’s neighbor. In the social doctrine of the Church, solidarity is placed alongside the value of justice. It is the way of love. Love presupposes and transcends justice, which “must find its fulfillment in charity” (Saint John Paul II).
We are celebrating the Jubilee Year of Mercy, not the Jubilee Year of Justice. By saying this, I don’t mean to devalue the importance of justice or set justice in opposition to mercy. As Pope Francis says: “God goes beyond justice with His mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous… God does not deny justice. He rather envelops it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.” That event is the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As we approach Christmas in these first weeks of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, like the crowds that followed John the Baptist, we are called to repentance and conversion, made visible by acting with justice, but not with justice alone (which can be distorted), but by the deeper power of love and mercy. We are called to live in solidarity with others, committed to the good of others, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering. Christmas reminds us of this call. God sent us His Son to reveal His love to us. With the fullness of mercy, the Father gave us His Son as our Savior. We are called to respond to this incredible mercy and love by being “Merciful like the Father.”
In these last weeks of Advent, let us continue to contemplate the mystery of mercy supremely revealed in the Son of God who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.” And let’s not forget to do a work of mercy as a Christmas gift for someone in need, for Jesus Himself “in the distressing disguise of the poor” (Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta).
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