As children we tend to love teachers who are nice, offer lessons we can easily understand, and grade on a generous curve. By the time we’re adults and we’ve learned a bit more of what life has to teach us, we often credit those teachers who demanded more from us and prepared us for the “school of hard knocks.” Both teaching styles have their place, as we see in the persons of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. At various points in the gospels, pupils ask both of these teachers for advice on how to live.
In Chapter 19 of Matthew’s gospel , a rich young man asks Jesus to teach him how to achieve eternal life.
Jesus gives him a tough assignment:
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
This lesson seemed too much for the young man to absorb.
In this Sunday’s gospel reading from Luke (Lk 3:10-18) John the Baptist gives a seemingly easier assignment to a group on a similar quest:
“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none,” John counsels. To a tax collector, he says “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” To a soldier, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages,” he advises.
The Baptist’s advice seems more doable than abandoning all you own and leaving on a journey into the unknown. After all, John’s suggestions are things most civilized people know they’re supposed to do, anyway. Reducing yourself to nothing and leaving your fate in God’s hands is quite another story—one that can leave us anxious.
Advent is meant as a season of hope by which God alleviates such anxiety. Our first reading this Sunday (Zep 3:14-18a) is from a prophet who teaches us the source of that hope: fear of God. Zephaniah describes the Jerusalem of his time as a “rebellious, polluted and tyrannical city,” populated by wicked citizens who didn’t fear God. Their faith was in themselves. So Jerusalem’s enemies instilled in them an anxiety about that faith. That made faith in a higher power their only refuge. The survivors of that lesson in humility became examples to others, teaching that fear of God is actually respect for a wisdom that instills hope for the day we’ll inherit that wisdom.
“On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!,” Zephaniah states. “The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.”
In our second reading, Jesus’ most ardent disciple, and one of the Church’s favorite teachers, gives us his answer to this Sunday’s lesson of the day: “How should we live?” (Phil 4:4-7)
“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God,” Paul tells the Philippians. “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Peace on earth, good will toward humanity. Simple lesson, more easily learned as we students graduate from life’s anxieties to a nice, healthy fear of God.