Doing the Good You Can Do

St. John the Baptist confronted a difficult question. Soldiers came to him (it’s not clear what kind of soldiers these were). We are told:

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Luke 3:14

The implication of his answer is that extortion and brutality were a common practice. It was certainly common in battles to “plunder” a city and engage in terrible acts of brutality. St. John’s answer is quite simple. Unanswered, and unasked, are the larger questions. What about the role of soldiers and the empire? What about the right relationship of people to an occupying power? Crickets…

Christ seems to side-step the implications of such questions when confronted with the matter of taxes. Rome’s domination of the world came with a price: taxes – lots of them. Those taxes were not used for the public good, building roads, police protection, and the like. They enriched Caesar and supported an ever-expanding military project. Christ famously says, holding a coin with Caesar’s image, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It is an answer that has spawned 20 centuries’ worth of unanswered questions.

The common ground within St. John’s answer and that of Christ is how limited they are in their scope. Neither presents a sweeping theory of history or civic arrangements. They confine themselves to the “thing at hand.”

The mental habits of contemporary culture have been nurtured in abstract theories. A simple matter of unmet medical care is at least as likely to be met with explanations of the public and private sector and economic theory as it is with actual medical help. Indeed, such questions are more than likely to be about someone on the other side of the country rather than your neighbor down the street.

The abstracted life is a torment for the soul.

We are created as incarnate beings, bodies ensouled with taste and touch. God gives Himself to us in very immediate terms: bread, wine, water, oil. Orthodoxy teaches us that an icon is better than the imagination. We cannot kiss imaginations. Our abstract thoughts, no doubt about things that seem to matter, are the equivalent of dreams. We wander through them, acquiring passionate opinions that seek to attach us to these ethereal notions. Pinned with anger and envy, we find ourselves distracted. A day passes and we have done nothing except give our souls over to such attachments.

We turn to Christ and wonder, “What should we do?”

The answer, I think, is simple and immediate: Do the good that lies at hand.

God continually places before us the opportunity to do good. Whether contemplation, work or play, showing mercy or praying, good is always possible. Giving attention to whatever the closer good may be allows us to avoid distraction and ease the torment of our souls.

I have been asked any number of times lately whether I think Christians should vote. I have no thoughts on the matter of “should.” However, I think voting can be a good that is “at hand.” But if it is a good “at hand,” then it should be done when it is “at hand.” That’s about once a year, on average. Period. As people become caught up in the swirl of political passions, they “vote” many times a day to no effect. It is nothing more than a fantasy and a distraction, a conversation that is an exercise in futility.

When Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims first appeared, I was struck by how consistently they pointed towards the immediate, the small, the hidden. Re-reading them, I found a number of them worth considering in this regard:

Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.

Be polite with everyone, first of all, family members.

Be faithful in little things.

Do your work, then forget it.

Be simple, hidden, quiet, and small.

Think and talk about things no more than necessary.

Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.

Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.

Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.

I included the last of these admonitions in token of the fact that such an immediate existence is strangely difficult in our times. I suspect that our distracted life and fantasy existence are not only filled with the passions, but demons as well. How could it not be? It is always sage advice to avoid the haunts of demons. If, in your day, you find it hard to draw yourself away from distractions and back to the good that lies at hand, then know that you have found that day’s spiritual struggle, the frontline of the battle and that single place where your presence and your prayers are most needed.

The angels and the saints will meet you there.

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