We’re talking about how John the Baptizer sized up the legitimacy of one’s repentance. Hip deep in the river he preached, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” When three different groups of people came for baptism John gave each of them a litmus test to assess whether or not they’re ready for Messiah’s kingship.
First, he commanded the religious experts to share their food and clothing with the poor. Next, as a bunch of tax collectors came for a spiritual dunking from the camel-skin-donning, bug-eating prophet, they asked, “What shall we do?” John answered these candidates, “Don’t collect (taxes) any more than you are required to!”
This was big since these were people who worked for the occupying Roman oppressors collecting taxes from their own people. Worse than that, these shyster employees of an evil state typically extorted additional cash for their own use! They had their own neighbors by the throat. If they refused to pay, they would have to answer to Big Brother Rome. As much as the Jews hated Romans, they detested their sell out brothers more.
John’s message to us is…
If we have leverage, we are required to use it for the advantage of those who lack it.
Tax collectors possessed the leverage of the state. Their Roman occupiers authorized them as their agents to fill the belly of the beast and if they chose to, squeeze their own brothers of as much money as possible. They supported their oppressors and filled their own pockets with their countrymen’s hard earned money at the same time.
Before you skip this, assuming that since you don’t work for the IRS, it doesn’t apply to you, I’ll remind you that we all have “leverage” of one sort or another. You don’t have to be a tax collector to have clout. For instance, if you’re a business owner, an employer, a CEO of a company, you have leverage over your subordinates. If you have people who are dependent on you for their paycheck, you have leverage. If you are wealthy or white or male, you have leverage that others don’t. If you’re a lawmaker or a law enforcer, you have leverage over others. Anyone with the “upper hand” possesses leverage over someone else.
Tim Keller relates a story about how an unbelieving textile worker in Hong Kong told his friend how the preacher had identified the sins he needed to confess to God––“laziness, a violent temper, and addiction to cheap entertainment.” But then he relayed how disappointed he was that nothing had been said about his boss’s sins. “Nothing about how he employs child laborers, how he doesn’t give us the legally required holidays, how he puts false labels on the products, and how he forces us to do overtime with out pay…” The worker decided not to go to a church whose message was incomplete.
Our idea of holiness has a hole it. In many of our Christian circles we rail against certain private morality issues and conveniently overlook the abundance of our social trespasses. We address the worker but not the employer. We ask people to repent of their lusts and addictions, but not their selfish misuse of privilege. When do we preach against our racism, misogyny, and greed?
John, who prophesied in the desert and James, who pastored in Jerusalem were kindred spirits, not to mention they were cousins. James spoke no less bluntly than his cousin to those with clout:
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. James 5:1-6
In like manner, Isaiah chastised the rich for using their wealth as leverage over the poor: “Your houses are filled with things stolen from the poor. How dare you crush my people, grinding the faces of the poor into the dust?” (Isaiah 3:14)
Money buys clout. A three-time All-American student athlete gets away with sexually assaulting an unconscious woman with a slap on the wrist. O.J. gets away with murdering his wife. A CEO is fired for robbing the company, goes to white-collar resort jail for two years and comes out with a $47 million bonus.
You can inherit leverage as well as buy it. The majority culture in any country, for instance, will always have the power they need to bless or oppress those in the minority. And history shows that they (we) will surrender that power with no small struggle. When we realize that our majority status is being threatened and that “others” are beginning to outnumber us we wall ourselves into our safe havens. Threaten our majority status and it’s game on!
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Democracy Leader and Nobel Peace Laureate said to her oppressors, “Use your liberty to promote ours.”
Russell Moore said, “Left to ourselves, the majority will always protect the powerful, and forget the weak. That’s especially true when the weak at issue are not only powerless but invisible.”
James “the Just” also wrote to his constituency that there’s only one religion that God accepts, the kind that not only prioritizes purity but also protects the vulnerable, i.e. widows and orphans. James 1:27
He learned these things from his half-brother, Jesus, and from the prophets who repeatedly commanded care for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor––the quartet of the vulnerable. Those four groups represent anyone with zero socio-economic clout. They lived at subsistence level and, in the event of famine, foreign invasion, or social marginalization they were never many days away from starvation. Today, we might expand this quartet to include such groups as refugees, minorities in a majority culture, migrant workers, single parents, the un-housed, the unborn, you name it.
Russell Moore again: “The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again.’”
“The strong must disadvantage themselves for the weak, the majority for the minority, or the community frays and the fabric breaks.” Tim Keller
It’s interesting that neither John nor Jesus required tax collectors to quit their day jobs. They didn’t say to them, “Resign your position and get a respectable job.” Presumably, they left their career choices to their individual Spirit-imbued consciences.
While God may not require that we forfeit leverage itself, he always demands that we surrender how we use it. He doesn’t always demand that we give away all our money, but that we steward it in the most generous way possible. The majority culture can’t very well choose a different skin color, but they can treat those in the minority as equals before God and people. There’s no room in the Father’s heart for a Western world “caste system.” Nothing could be further from his plan for a so-called “Christian nation” than a canyon sized gap between the Haves and the Have Nothings in any culture.
Of all people, we “Christian” people should be the first in line to surrender any and all unjust possibilities of privilege for the sake of the unprivileged. We must steward whatever form of leverage we possess in such a way as to reflect the personality of the One who allowed us to have leverage in the first place.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor. Amen (A Franciscan benediction)
Next time we’ll look at how we must use whatever power we have to help the powerless…