+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bureaucracy is one of humanity’s great accomplishments. I’m not joking. It’s essential for a civil, complex, and prosperous society, but it is almost a four letter word…, even in Washington, the headquarters of some of the most emblematic bureaucracies in the world. These days most highly talented, interesting, dynamic, imaginative people work in governmental, corporate, academic, medical bureaucracies. Most of us know and love and admire people who are, or have been, part of bureaucracies. You may be one of those people. But I know of few people who have expressed delight in being part of a bureaucracy, and I know few people like to think of themselves as bureaucrats.
Why do we feel negatively about bureaucracy? I think that we associate it with what is ordinary, common, drab, routine, deadening; with hierarchies where too often brown-nosers and mediocrities rise to the upper levels. The conventional view is that it rewards conformity and places the highest premium on keeping the routine going, whether that routine serves any worthwhile purpose or not.
In an address to West Point plebs, William Deresiewicz lamented the crisis of leadership in all parts of American society. He argued that we are training people: “Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.”[i]
He said that bureaucracies encourage: “Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be… Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keep the routine going.”[ii] Just keep the routine going.
Can you imagine anyone more antithetical to that kind of behavior than John the Baptist? Just keep the routine going. He was about breaking up the routine. Can you imagine John the Baptist emerging out of a bureaucracy and rising up in the ranks of one? Someone like John is not beholden to, or trying to please, the powers that be; he takes risks, demands things be done differently, and remains undeterred despite intense resistance.
Deresiewicz told the plebs:
It’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within – without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.[iii]
John’s ministry was in the wilderness, and Jesus repeatedly returned to the wilderness to be alone. Their time in prayer, in rest, in reflection, in solitude gave them clarity about themselves – who they were, what mattered to them – and clarity about their purpose and vision. They developed a new way of looking at things and offered a whole new direction.
Both of them repeatedly attacked the status quo and threatened those in authority. They were offering leadership. People, then and now, judge: we can choose to be part of it, or not.
Today’s gospel has three sections. First, John spoke about the urgent need for repentance. Then, he described what repentance, turning around and re-orienting your life to God, looks like. He concluded by talking about the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited savior.
John called people to a baptism of repentance, a call to re-align themselves and their behavior with God’s purposes, to renew their allegiance to God. He called them to leave their homes and routines and to come out to the wilderness, and once he got people out there, incredibly, he abused them: “You brood of vipers.” It’s like calling them “snake bastards:” snakes as evil, bastards as illegitimate; it’s about as insulting “as one could imagine in a society in which honor is fundamentally a function of birth.”[iv]
To the people, it was their birth pedigree, descendents of Abraham and Jacob, that assured them they were part of God’s chosen people. They assumed that their well-being depended upon their bloodline. Their smugness appalled John. He thought that they’d be better off if they thought of themselves as bastards.
John insisted that they make a personal decision, an act of will and intent. He told them that their ancestry was not sufficient to avert God’s judgment. God cares about the way they lived, not about their lineage. God had made human beings from dust; he could surely make a faithful people, a renewed Israel, from rocks.
John insulted them and bashed their cherished beliefs about themselves, about their identity. Still, the crowds asked, “What should we do?” John explained that the fruits of repentance didn’t come from religious heritage or ritual or observance and didn’t come from status or wealth or power. The fruits of repentance came from the way they treated others.
John told the crowds to care for their neighbor, to share with those in need. He gave an example: a person with two coats should give one of their coats to someone who didn’t have a coat. As now, and perhaps even more so then, one’s clothing indicated social status, ethnic origin, and political position. It conveyed who you were, your identity, how people in the community treated you.[v] If you gave one of your coats to someone without a coat, in a way you were sharing your identity and status. John was flattening hierarchies, equalizing position. Every person has equal dignity. To those on top, it was a threatening teaching.
In Judaea, the Roman tax collection system was notoriously corrupt, essentially institutionalized extortion. John instructed the tax collectors to be fair and honest. He gave a similar message to soldiers, who could use their force to intimidate and threaten people. Like the tax collectors, they were often shake-down specialists. John said, “Don’t be greedy. Be content with what you have.”
“What should we do?” John’s answer: be socially responsible, be outward looking, be engaged, be fair, don’t be selfish. That’s the true fruit of repentance; that’s spiritual health; that’s the primary mark of being part of God’s people, not your ancestry.
The conviction and charisma and force with which John delivered his message, his courage in speaking against the powers that be, provoked hope that John himself was the Messiah. People expected the Messiah to bring judgment, and John colorfully spoke of judgment and prepared for the dawning of a new age. John’s vision of the coming of God and judgment was fierce and fiery and catastrophic: wheat and chaff, reward and punishment.
I suspect it is not coincidental that we hear about John in December while we are simultaneously focusing on Santa Claus, who is checking his list to see who’s naughty or nice. We make Santa a judge. We imply that some kids may not be worthy to receive gifts, that they’ll be left out. It can be hardly surprising that we saddle our children with projections of our own worries. But despite our fears, part of us knows that Santa doesn’t ever give coal and switches.
That truth is evident in most of what Jesus has to say about judgment. I’m grateful that Jesus had a different emphasis than John in speaking about the coming of God, the in-breaking of his rule and dominion. John prepared the way for Jesus, but Jesus refined John’s vision.
Jesus had a greater sense that God’s coming would free humanity, that he would liberate us from evil and destructive forces. Jesus’ sense of God drawing near meant people were healed of infirmities and buoyed by hope and freed from darkness. God’s Kingdom drawing near meant even the despised and unattractive, sinners and the abandoned, were accepted and embraced.
But I am grateful for John’s sense of the urgency of judgment and his insistence that everyone must make a personal decision. The judgment is urgent, imminent, because it’s here and now. The judgment, to me, seems to be one not made by God, but rather one we make. God allows us to judge and choose: open to him, or not. We make the judgment month by month, day by day, moment by moment – sometimes welcoming God, and sometimes not. The good news is that he has come and is always there for us, even when our judgment fails.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son. Amen.
[i] William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” The American Scholar, Spring 2010, pp. 20-31, quote on p. 24.
[ii] Deresiewicz, p. 24.
[iii] Deresiewicz, p. 28.
[iv] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 236.
[v] Douglas R. Edwards, article on ‘Dress and Ornamentation’ in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 2, David Noel Freedman, Editor in Chief, Doubleday (1992), p. 238.