Some Thoughts on Art from John the Baptist

When all the people asked John, ‘What must we do?’ he answered, ‘If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.’ There were tax collectors too who came for baptism, and these said to him, ‘Master, what must we do?’ He said to them, ‘Exact no more than your rate.’ Some soldiers asked him in their turn, ‘What about us? What must we do?’ He said to them, ‘No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!’ – Luke 3:10-14

I was praying over today’s Gospel, and focused on the part written above. I was using Ignatian contemplation, in which you enter into the scene, and become part of it, possibly having conversations with the other characters in the scene.

After listening to John the Baptist tell the people that those who have extra clothing and food must share with those who have none, I listened to both the tax collectors and the soldiers in turn ask John what specifically they must do.

It struck me that both of these groups could be considered collaborators with the Roman occupation. The tax collectors certainly were – they took taxes from their fellow Jews for Rome, and the only way they made a living was by taking more than they were told to take. They worked on commission, as it were – ‘Rome must have its tax, but take an extra 10% for your troubles’. In telling the tax collectors to take no more than their rate – that is, to take no more than Rome’s tax – he is effectively asking them to work for zero salary, and become penniless.

However, he has just told the Jewish crowd as a whole that they are to provide for those without means. So therefore, in a way, he is saying to the non-tax-collectors in the crowd, ‘I am asking the tax collectors to become penniless, so that they may walk justly with their God as your brothers in the nation of Israel. Therefore, you must take care of them. If Rome requires that you give her men to take her taxes, then you must take care of these men so that they do not fall into unrighteousness. It is your fault if these men feel pressured to cheat in order to survive, and are tempted to cut themselves off from the community. You must make an effort to keep them still your brothers’.

He’s easier on the soldiers. He allows them to keep their jobs – and I’m assuming here that these are soldiers who work for Rome, not temple guards – but it’s also about money. He tells them not to rob or accuse others unjustly (so they can either blackmail them or take their property once they are unjustly convicted), and to be content with the pay they receive for a job that does do a service for the community, in terms of keeping the peace in the nation. They are allowed to be soldiers, but they must be satisfied with the small reward they receive for this service.

So if one thinks about the Roman context of this conversation, it is all about the community’s duty to help their brothers and sisters stay righteous, to stay in relationship with God and the community. To ease the pressures to fall into sin, and help each other on the road to salvation.

Keeping this Roman context in mind, I turned to the original question I had wanted to ask the Baptist at the beginning of the exercise: ‘What about us artists? What must we do?’

Here was the answer I got back: ‘You may make anything for which you are commissioned, except idols. [Idols here representing anything that violates God’s Law.] Let your honouring of God be showing in the excellence of your work. As for that which you make without any commission, of your own volition – let it be your praise. Let your art be a praise to God, your sacrifice of praise. Let it be your prayer of praise.

‘And for every piece of gold that is melted down to be beaten into a beautiful image to praise God – whether for a vessel or sculpture for the Temple, or for any other thing – that piece of gold must feed more people as a sculpture, by raising their minds, hearts, and spirits to God, than it would have fed if it were spent to buy food for people’s bodies. Only if it feeds more people as a sculpture than as bread is that piece of gold justified to be used for art.’

I offer these brief reflections for whatever value they may have. I’m not a historian, and these thoughts may have no grounding in actual history, but I hope they may still have some value in spiritual understanding, of how we should live as the community of Christians, and especially as Christian artists.

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