Today’s gospel (Luke 3:7-18) is the continuation of last week’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6). They are two parts of the same story and I don’t think we can fully understand today’s without the context of last week’s
Last week I said that John the Baptist was asking us to confront ourselves and look at the landscape of our lives:
- The valleys in which we make less of ourselves than we really are;
- The mountains and hills on which we make more of ourselves than we really are;
- The crooked parts of our lives that are out of alignment and have no integrity; and
- The rough places in us – the habits, patterns, and beliefs, that cause us to trip and fall.
Those landscapes describe ways of living and relating to the world, others, and ourselves. They are also a mirror by which we can confront ourselves. This self-confrontation, however, isn’t about judging or condemning ourselves. It’s about naming the places in our lives that hurt.
What do you see when you look at the landscape of your life today? Where does it hurt?
We can think of last week’s gospel as being about making a diagnosis and this week’s gospel as being about prescribing a treatment. “What then should we do?” That’s what the crowds ask John the Baptist in today’s gospel. They’re asking about the treatment that will begin to heal the hurt in their lives and world. It’s been a familiar question in my life and I’ll bet it has been in your life too.
I wonder how many times you and I have asked that question throughout our lives. I’ll bet it’s a question you’ve asked over and over. I have. I started asking it in childhood and continue to ask it today. It’s not a question we ask only once. And it’s not a question that is answered once and for ever.
I’ve asked it when I was thinking about my future, making decisions, and trying to grow up. (And growing up is hard at every age.) I’ve asked it when I was in over my head and life was overwhelming. I’ve asked it when a relationship got difficult and painful. I’ve asked it when I had really messed up and didn’t know where or how to begin cleaning up the mess. I’ve asked it when grief and loss broke my heart, when dreams were shattered, and when I was scared. I’ve asked it when I was inspired, excited, and passionate about a new interest, a sense of calling, or a long awaited opportunity. I’ve asked it every time I came to a transition in my life regardless of how I got there.
“What then should we do?” When has that been your question and what caused you to ask it? In what ways is it your question today? And what’s behind it?
“What then should we do?” is a question that opens something within us. It’s a reminder that life is always unfolding before us. It’s a step on the journey of uncovering, discovering, or recovering ourselves.
I’ve come to realize that when I ask that question I’m not just looking for information, I’m really looking for myself. It’s not just a question about what I should do, but about who I am and how I want to be. And I think that’s what’s going on with the crowds who ask John, “What then should we do?”
Here’s why I say that. John has just called the crowds “a brood of vipers” and told them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Anticipating their next move, he tells them to not even begin defending, excusing, and justifying themselves by claiming, “We have Abraham as our ancestor.”
John is anything but indifferent to the crowds. He is angry with love and concern for them. It’s like a parent’s anger at the little child who runs away in a shopping center or rides his or her bike into the street.
I want to be as blunt with you today as John was with the crowds in his day. I hope that’s ok. You ready? Here’s what I think John is saying, “You sons of snakes, take responsibility for yourselves and stop half-assing your life. I don’t care what your name is or who your family is. This is about your life, not Abraham’s.”
John isn’t rejecting Abraham’s legacy. He’s making a distinction. Abraham’s legacy is not a fixed path to be followed. It’s a light that illumines the crowds’ path of life. Abraham’s legacy is not a lifetime guarantee. It’s a promise that they do not walk that path alone. They do, however, have to walk the path of life for themselves. Abraham cannot walk it for them. That’s also true for you and me.
John is turning up the heat, holding up the mirror, and closing the exits. That’s when the crowds ask, “What then should we do?” It’s as if they’re saying, “If we can’t do what we’ve always done, if we can’t stand behind Abraham, if we can’t make him responsible, we don’t know what to do. We’ve never done it any other way. We don’t know who we are apart from Abraham. We’ve never taken responsibility for ourselves, who we are, or how we want to be. What then should we do?”
Their question isn’t about a lack of information. It’s a symptom that they lack themselves. It’s a confession that things are going all that great. They’ve lost themselves. Their lives have become untethered from their deepest self, the “one who is more powerful.” Their question is less about what they should do and more about who and how they want to be.
What is the self from which you are living today? That’s the unspoken question in today’s gospel. And is it really you, who you want to be, and how you want to be, or is it someone or something else? Who or what is the Abraham in your life today? Are you living your life or someone else’s? And what is connecting you to the “one who is more powerful?”
Every time we lose a piece of ourselves and latch on to some Abraham we descend into a valley, climb a mountain, walk a crooked path, or stumble over rough ground, and it hurts. It hurts us and it hurts others.
“What then should we do?” Maybe there’s a better question. Maybe the better question is, “How then do we want to be?” And maybe that’s not even a better question. Maybe it’s just the prior question.
If we get the “how” of our lives worked out the “what” follows pretty naturally. If we know how we want to be, the values we hold, the qualities we embody, what we are living for and what we are willing to die for, we’ll know what to do.
It will be as simple and obvious as a person who has two coats sharing with someone who has none, as being a tax collector and taking no more than the amount prescribed, as being a solider and not extorting money by threats and false accusations.
It will be that simple and obvious. And it will be that difficult.
“How then do you and I want to be?”
That’s not a question to be answered. It’s a question to be lived.