When you look through the teachings of Jesus, a number of themes emerge - love, prayer, money and faith. But as you consider the teachings of Jesus according to these categories, it quickly becomes apparent that Jesus talks about money and possessions far more than he talks about any thing else - in fact he talks about money 3 times more than he talks even about love (which conquers all); 7 times more than he talks about prayer; and 8 times more than he talks about faith and belief.
So it should come as no surprise to us when we continue with the teaching ministry of John, son of Zechariah, that he too should talk about money and possessions. You may recall that last week, after almost 490 years of silence - the word of the Lord was once again addressed to one of his prophets. And when John began to preach, he proclaimed that what was needed was repentance and baptism to cleanse us from our sins. Now as people come to him, they ask a single question - 'what must we do?'
John gives simple, practical advice in answer: 'if you have two cloaks, you must share with the person who has none' as well as 'don't rip people of' and 'be content with your pay.' John follows in a long line of prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in putting the demands of justice front and centre for followers of the Lord. His teaching has been emphasised by the saints across the centuries and by the popes, most especially since the tradition of the Social Doctrine of the church has been given, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891). There, the pope reminds us that once our basic needs have been met (food, clothing, housing, recreation, transport), then everything else that we have belongs to those who are poor. This is the idea that all we have belongs not to us, but to the common good.
"But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over." (Rerum Novarum, 22)If we want to be followers of Jesus, then we must do the same. If we dare to ask the Lord, 'what must we do', then we should expect that we will receive the same answer. Establish justice. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. If you ask - but how much should I give? - then the traditional scriptural teaching is that a tithe - ten percent of your income - is a good starting point. Although not specifically taught in the New Testament (although it is clearly presumed in many places), the principle there is that everything belongs to the Lord and we are only stewards of the things that he has given to us. So if everything belongs to the Lord, then we should be prepared to give everything back to him, to take care of all who are (materially and spiritually) poor. And to whom should we give? Yes, we have an obligation to provide for the Church, but beyond that, we should give to any organisation that cares for the poor and needy and engages in works of mercy, evangelisation or charity.
What must we do? It is a great question to ask ourselves in this mid-point of the season of Advent. But be prepared to first look at our credit card statements and our cheque books before we ask it. Then we can know if we have the courage to actually do what the Lord will invite us to do.
Recorded at St Michael's, 9.30am (10'54")