Sermon for Advent III, Year C
Based on Lk. 3:7-18
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“Social Ethics: John’s & Ours”
Our gospel today, gives us an account of John the Baptizer’s fiery sermon that he preached to the multitudes, calling them to: “Bear fruits that befit repentance.” John also connects the good fruit of repentance with the following social ethics: “Let whoever has two coats share with those who have none; and let whoever has food do likewise.” And to tax collectors, John admonished them to: “Collect no more than is appointed you.” And to soldiers, he instructed: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
Benevolence toward the poor, honesty and integrity in business, contentment with one’s lot in life; are social ethics which did not become extinct at the end of the first century A.D. Rather, these social ethics are universal in scope, since they apply to people of every time and place.
Social ethics are an extremely important ingredient of every society or civilization. The quality of human relationships in a society and the consequences of human behaviour have everything to do with whether or not that society will survive and be healthy or die out and be ruined. That’s why John directed his sermon to people from every walk of life, since it is necessary for everyone in society to repent and live by a system of honourable social ethics, if that society is going to survive and remain healthy.
One Christian leader whom I admire and respect, former secretary general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, realized this great truth when he observed: “In our world the road to holiness necessarily runs through the world of action.” In other words, what we do and how we do it has consequences for ourselves, others, the whole world, and God.
John begins his teaching and preaching on social ethics by placing, first and foremost, a special emphasis on the poor and oppressed. We are responsible, insists John, for clothing and feeding the poor. We, who have been blessed with a great abundance of life’s basic necessities, are instructed to bear the good fruit of repentance by sharing these things with the vast majority of the world’s population, who are poor.
In a sophisticated age of technology, science, and greater knowledge; we are not only responsible for clothing and feeding the poor. We are also responsible for searching out and understanding the root causes of poverty and oppression; in order that we may appropriately confess and repent of our individual and collective sins against the poverty-stricken and oppressed; leading to a changing of our actions towards a more just and merciful world for all. To be satisfied with less is merely to deal with the symptoms, while ignoring the real problems and issues.
For several years now, the Canadian Churches have been grappling with the root causes of poverty and oppression; through education and consciousness-raising literature and social action events, under the auspices of the 10 Days Ecumenical Program. This program is usually in January or February of every year, focusing on our international and national connectedness; as we Christians endeavour to work, study, and pray for a more just, merciful world of God’s perfect shalom.
Also, as Lutherans, our Canadian Lutheran World Relief and Global Hunger and Development programs continue to do excellent work in dealing with the root causes of poverty and oppression. Each year, thanks to these programs, hundreds of thousands of people are reached, improving their lives with development projects that are geared towards self-help and self-sufficiency. For example, over years of supporting our sister church in Ethiopia, the citizens of that nation now enjoys their own health clinics, hospitals, agricultural and literacy programs—to name a few of the more outstanding success stories. This sort of support—by looking at the root causes of poverty and oppression and by respecting the cultural values of others—helps us to be a part of the solution towards God’s perfect shalom. By supporting CLWR, GH&D, and 10 Days, you are making a difference; you are in solidarity with the world’s poor and oppressed peoples. For that, I commend you, and give thanks to our Triune God.
John’s social ethic addressed to tax collectors, is one which can be broadened in scope to apply to business people and governments. John advises such people to: “Collect no more than is appointed you.” That is a message that “cuts right to the bone,” and speaks to our age. Several years back, I recall the following statement in a newspaper article:
Principal Group founder Donald Cormie denied Thursday he had a responsibility to “deal fairly, honestly and openly” with the clients of two failed subsidiaries.” 1
If it was not Mr. Cormie’s responsibility to “deal fairly, honestly and openly” with his clients, then, one wonders, what was his responsibility? What about the honesty and integrity of our present political leaders, as they got caught up in the election fever of making promises that one wonders whether or not they’ll be able to keep, now that they're elected to office. During election campaigns, it has become more common for party leaders to accuse their opponents of corruption, dishonesty, and lack of integrity.
What is our world coming to anyway? If the leaders of business and government render it a necessity to lie to ensure their political success—then what can we say about the ordinary Jane or John Citizen of our society? Is it not true that the leaders of any nation are only as good as the people who elect them? Could it be that every citizen of our nation is in dire need of doing some heavy-duty repentance? The rampant greed that governs business and politics today is a far cry from John’s social ethic of honesty and integrity. How far can we travel down this treacherous road without the whole of society collapsing? In all of our business and political matters, we are responsible to conduct ourselves with honesty and integrity.
John’s third social ethic forbids people to practice extortion and blackmail, and encourages folks to be content with their lot in life. In several of the world’s poor nations, extortion and blackmail are everyday occurrences. People are threatened, tortured, and killed by the military-powered nations. Innocent, ordinary people, sometimes even children, are imprisoned without reason of arrest and without a fair trial. These present-day terrorist soldiers have made a complete mockery out of justice and democracy.
In North America, most of us—if not all of us—are guilty of not being content with our lot in life. The bigger and more is better ethic is practically out of control in our society. The mass media has gotten lots of mileage out of this ethic. Each and every day we are bombarded with the message that greed is good and ought to be cherished as our greatest virtue. Ultimately, our failure to appreciate what we do and have, and to be content with it, shall only lead us into greater misery, unhappiness and emptiness.
Repentance, according to that ancient desert eccentric preacher, named John, is a necessary and vital ingredient of everyday life. John insists that repentance is not a private matter between me and God. It not only involves our minds, hearts and souls—rather, it also involves what we do and how we do it. Out fruits that befit repentance lead to loving, caring, responsible social ethics.
As we continue our Advent journey by preparing for our Lord’s coming, may we be led by God’s Word working in each one of us to produce the fruit of true repentance.
1 Cited from: Edmonton Journal, Friday, March 13, 1988.
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