Gospel: Luke 3:10-18
Conscience and Prediction
What causes people to change their lives? Is it guilt from past indiscretions? Is it hope for a better future? Or is it both? Explain.
Why do some of the most talented people in Hollywood or Washington morally self-destruct? What causes those with no future, no prospects, and no hope to rise above and succeed? One of the many answers to these questions lies in vision. The ability to see life and the future in a different way. With vision comes will. With will comes results. Those who change for the better have vision. Those who collapse under the weight of their indiscretions lack clear sight.
Not only was John the Baptist a contrary sign to the people. He had vision. He could act as conscience for his audience. And he could see beyond his time and place to something greater. Or, more specifically, to SOMEONE greater.
After John told the people around him that simply being Jewish was not good enough to please God, 10 people kept asking him, "What should we do then?"
11 "The person who packed extra clothes should share with the person who needs clothing to stay warm at night," John kept saying. "The person with food should share with the hungry."
12 Tax men came to be baptized by John. "What should we do?" they asked John.
13 "Don't collect more money from the people than the Romans tell you to collect," John answered.
14 Even the Roman soldiers kept asking him, "What should we do, too?"
"Don't beat up people for their money. Don't threaten to lie about people in court so they will give you their money. Be happy with your pay," John replied.
15 The crowds around John wondered if John was the Messiah. After all, they waited eagerly for the coming of God's savior. 16 But John said to everyone, "Listen! I baptize you with water. But there is someone coming who is greater than I am. He is so great, I am not even fit to untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire! 17 His baptism will be like a great grain harvest. He will clear off the floor where he separated the grain from the rest of the plant. Then, he will store the good grain in his barn. But he will burn up the rest of the plant in a never ending fire!"
18 John kept encouraging the people talking about changing their lives and about the coming Messiah. In this way, John spread the Good News to everyone who heard him.
Luke presented John as a contrary sign, a prophet who had a ministry in the desert. In this gospel, Luke presented the content of John's message: repentance and prediction. Prepare for the coming Messiah!
10 The crowds (kept) asking him, saying, "What then should we do?" 11 Having answered, he (kept) saying to them, "Let the (person) having two (under) shirts share (one undershirt) with one not having (any shirt). Let the (person) having food do the same." 12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, What should we do? 13 He said to them, "Collect nothing more than (the authorities have) ordered for you." 14 Even the soldiers (kept) asking him, "What should we do, too?" He said to them, "Shake no one down nor accuse (anyone) falsely. Be satisfied with your wages."
3:10-11 "(kept) asking . . . saying" The verbs are literally "were asking" and "was saying." The verb tense indicated an on-going dialogue between John and his audience.
3:11 ""Let the (person) having two (under) shirts share (one undershirt) with one not having (any shirt)." Life in a desert climate required residents to wear layers of clothing. While an outer garment and a tunic ("undershirt" in 3:11) would be worn in the heat of the day, two tunics would be worn in the cold of the night. John called upon those who possessed (but did not use) an extra tunic to share with those without any tunic. Hence, John discouraged hoarding that was not only uncharitable, but also broke down a sense of community.
3:13 "Collect nothing more than (the authorities have) ordered for you." is literally "Collect nothing more than from that having been ordered for you." Tax collectors actually had a franchise from the Roman officials. The collectors could garner any amount from local inhabitants. And they could enforce the taxation with the threat of imprisonment. Fees collected above the amount the Romans sought was the net profit for the tax collectors.
3:14 "Shake no one down nor accuse (anyone) falsely." The two verbs in this command referred to the means by which foreign soldiers would extort money from a local populace to supplement their incomes. Roman soldiers were notoriously underpaid. Officials turned a blind eye to the conduct of their soldiers in these matters. Hence, the soldiers in John's audience were non-Jewish.
The English slang "shake down" is as literal a phrase to the Greek as one could get. Both the English and Greek phrases meant to use violence as a means to extort money from someone.
If the threat of violence did not work, the threat of legal proceedings might work. The false word of a soldier carried more weight with a Roman magistrate than the truth from a local inhabitant.
Like the other evangelists, Luke used the ministry of the Baptist to prefigure the ministry of Jesus. The message of repentance was the same with the two ministries. John's prediction of the Messiah found its fulfillment in the faith of Christians.
There was a third and very subtle parallel between the two movements. Some people left their homes to see the Baptist (so, they lived in the desert as if they were homeless). Others (tax collectors) lived as if there had no home (i.e., community ties); so, seeing John was not an inconvenience. A third group lived a nomadic, outcast existence, by definition (i.e., Roman soldiers). To each group, John gave practical moral advice to build up a sense of community. Implicitly, John saw the sincere listener in his audience as those preparing to become God's new people.
Like John's audience, Christians lived a nomadic, outcast existence. If they did not claim a homeland, like the Jews, as they looked forward to a new heavenly homeland. In many cases, neophyte Christians were rejected by family and old friends who represented ties to a homeland. So, Christians lived on the spiritual (and, many times, literal) road, like the homeless. After all, they did call their movement "The Way."
The ministries of John and Jesus gathered their strength on the fringe, on the road. But, from the outside, both had a tremendous impact on those with the security of home. For both ministries turned the sinner into the saint, the derelict into the moral model, the hardhearted into the compassionate. This change came about with the very real challenge of living life as if every daily need depended upon God himself.
15 As the people waited with expectation and everyone wondered in their hearts about John, (if) he himself might not then be the Messiah, 16 John answered, saying to everyone, "Indeed, I baptize you in water. But One greater than me is coming, of whom I am not fit to unloosen the straps of his sandals. He himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 (He has) in his hand the winnowing shovel in order to clear his threshing floor and in order to gather the grain into his barn. He will, however, burn the chaff up in an unquenchable fire." 18 (With) many other comforting (statements), then, he preached the Good News to the people.
3:15 "As the people waited with expectation and everyone wondered in their hearts about John, (if) he himself might not then be the Messiah," This phrase referred to John's audience, not the general populace.
3:15-16 "Indeed, I baptize you in water . . . He himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire." John framed his role as a water baptizer (against the expectations of his audience). But he compared his role to the Messiah with a prophecy for everyone ("he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire"). At this point, John's message moved from his particular audience to humanity as a whole. John predicted a universal Messiah, not just a Jewish one.
"with the Holy Spirit and fire" What was the connection between the Holy Spirit and fire? Immersing people in the Holy Spirit would make them followers. What about fire? If fire were added to the Holy Spirit, fire would refer to purification (repentance). But the fire could oppose the Holy Spirit. Then, fire would refer to judgement ("the fires of hell"). The ambiguity of the phrase can support either interpretation, but the context with 3:17 supports a fire of judgement.
3:17 This verse is actually one sentence. The main clause is the judgement of fire. Clearing the floor and storing the grain is a relative clause. The context of 3:17 makes both clauses dependent upon 3:16 (the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire). The violent action of the winnow shovel is the baptism of the Holy Spirit (i.e., persecution up to the final judgement). The final test (see Luke 21:36) and condemnation is the fire of judgement.
The word "prophet" connoted two roles: moral conscience and visionary of future events. In this section of Luke, John did both. He exhorted his audience to practical, moral change that would enhance the common good. But, then he pointed to One Greater than he: the Messiah.
At the time of John and Jesus, Jews expected four different types of Messiahs. First, militant Jews looked to a Davidic king to rise up from the populace and lead a revolt against the Romans. Second, many Jews expected a great High Priest to cleanse the Temple from its corruption and restore a pure worship. Third, some yearned for a Great Teacher like Moses to explain the Law plainly and led all Jews in the way that would please the Lord. All three of these Messiahs would come from the people and would have some sort of pedigree (education, lineage, family or professional connection). But the last Messiah would appear from nowhere. And his authority to judge would come from God himself: the "Son of Man" from Daniel 7:13. The Davidic king would be known for his military genius. The High Priest would be known for his zealous purity in worship. The Great Teacher would be known for his wisdom. But the Son of Man would be known as God's agent of judgement. Clearly, John had this image in mind when he proclaimed the coming of the One Greater.
(Christian tradition claimed the other three images of Messiah for Jesus. Matthew's genealogy emphasized Jesus as the Son of David, "King," and Son of Abraham. The five great discourses found in Matthew point to Jesus as the "Great Teacher" in the tradition of Moses, who, according to tradition, wrote the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. And the letter to the Hebrews spoke to the role of Jesus as "High Priest." But the core claim Christians have to the Messiahship of Jesus lay squarely in the resurrection, an act of God, not of man. The resurrection justified the identification of Jesus as Daniel's "Son of Man." This was the figure John looked forward to.)
John used the image of baptism (immersion) with the Holy Spirit and fire. The notes above discussed the relationship between the two. And theological hindsight can reconcile the differences (i.e., God's mercy and his justice are the same). Even with that aside, we should remember John's prophecy was violent in nature, with God himself as the cause. The crisis of God's action would cause change: personal, social, and world wide. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the believer would suffer from their faith choice. Those who rejected the faith would also suffer from God's judgement. And, the Messiah would act as God's agent.
Why did all this talk of violence encourage John's audience? Why were these predictions "Good News?" Simply because these people would enjoy the comfort of the Spirit, in spite of the cost. They implicitly realized they would be saved through God's judgement. (Remember Jesus' words from two weeks ago in Luke 21:34-36. He encouraged his followers to pray for strength during the test and for strength to stand before the Son of Man at the Last Judgement.)
How has God changed your life? How have you changed morally? How has he changed your outlook on the future?
Living as a Christian begins and ends with faith. The ability to see beyond the present. And the ability to trust the person one sees. John the Baptist empowered people to believe. To see beyond their moral dilemmas. And to see One Greater.
Let us open our eyes to see the possible. A life better. And a life with Christ. Let us trust God will make these things happen.
Christmas is just around the corner. What small, practical changes can you see between now and then? How can you trust god with those changes?