Living with Luke (8): Luke 3:1-20

            Luke the Evangelist
 is traditionally symbolized by a winged ox or bull –
             a figure of sacrifice, service and strength.                                                                                                        The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following Christ.

Luke 3:1-20

3 In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
A voice crying out in the wilderness:
    Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
    and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
The crooked will be made straight
    and the rough places made smooth.
All humanity will see God’s salvation.
Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”
10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.”
14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?”
He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”
15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people.
19 But Herod the ruler had been criticized harshly by John because of Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the evil he had done.

From the world of Jewish faith and piety Luke transports to the “real” world of history and politics – Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanius (v.1).  Into that “real” world, the Word of God came to John, Elizabeth’s boy, who was in the wilderness near the Jordan River.  

He was busy with God’s business, announcing the preparation for the onset of God’s New Exodus, the end of the exile of God’s people.  John called the people to be “baptized” (v.3).  This baptism is usually translated as “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  That’s a good enough translation of the Greek but the concepts of “repentance” and “forgiveness” are used so differently today from what they meant then that a fresh rendering of this phrase is needed.  I like the CEB’s rendering, “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.”  This catches what the Greek says.  John baptizes the people calling them to “repent,” to show by their renewed faithfulness that they were ready to be God’s New Exodus people.  That’s what “wanting” forgiveness meant to a first century Jew.  God’s forgiveness would mean the end of the long exile that spanned the years in Babylon and continued through the centuries to that very day.

But here was a prophet in the wilderness announcing this long-awaited good news, just like the “Elijah” Malachi promised to come before the Lord’s return.  And he’s heralding the King’s arrival and the need to prepare for his royal visitation quoting the great promise of return from exile in Isaiah 40:

make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled,
    and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
The crooked will be made straight
    and the rough places made smooth.”

 John’s announcement closes with the powerful declaration that God’s salvation, his deliverance, this New Exodus, will take place in the very history apparently ruled by the likes of Tiberius, et. al.(vv.1-2).  But not so fast!  There’s another king entering the picture and making his move.  And the reverbations of that will shake everything and everyone up!

John is not easy on the people who have come out to the river for baptism.  He knows them, their history of unfaithfulness to God. He calls them “snakes.”  This is tantamount to naming them enemies of God (Is 14:29; 59:5; Jer 46:22).  Just being of Jewish blood is not enough!  Better start acting like God’s people or you’ll feel the scourge of divine judgment. 

The people want to know what they need to do.  What are acts appropriate to the baptism John offers and alignment with those whom God’s New Exodus will catch up in its wake?

To the crowds in general John says, “Clothe and feed the poor.”

To the tax collectors, whose very presence would make John’s movement both unsavory and subversive to good Jews, John says, “Stop stealing and defrauding your people.”

To soldiers, he commands, “Don’t use you position and authority to bully and intimidate others as is common among the troops. And even though you receive but a modest salary, be content.”

Note who is included by virtue of asking how they must prepare themselves to be part of God’s New Exodus:  the people of the land, the hated tax collectors, and soldiers (Jewish?  Roman?). And who is not because they do not ask:  religious leaders.  This prefigures the shape of the new people of God – outsiders included, insiders left outside (remember Mary’s Magnificat!) and prepares us for the rest of Luke’s story which highlights just this pattern of reversal.

These words of John, clearly had a divinely authoritative ring to them for the crowd.  They subvert common everyday practice with a call to unexpected generosity and care for others.  “Perhaps this is not merely “Elijah,” they say among themselves, “maybe he’s the one himself, the messiah!”

John disabuses the crowd of this expectation with two declarations.  The first is that an even more powerful figure than he is coming.  In his presence, even this great authoritative personage will pay homage by performing a slave’s task of unloosing his sandals.  Such is the august personal power of this coming one.

Secondly, John uses water for his baptismal work.  The coming one will use “the Holy Spirit and fire” (v.16).  John remains focused on the necessary judgment Israel must undergo.  But even this Luke interprets a “good news” because beyond the judgment lies the deliverance and return from exile the promised messiah will effect.  Isaiah 4:4-6 pictures this process using just thus imagery.

“4 When the Lord washes the filth from Zion’s daughters, and cleanses Jerusalem’s bloodguilt from within it by means of a wind (or Spirit) of judgment and a searing wind (or Spirit), then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the light of a blazing fire by night. Over all the glory there will be a canopy, which will be a booth by day for shade from the heat and a hiding place and shelter from a stormy downpour.”

          The judgment prepares for the reformation of the people of God.  Thus rightly, the people hear John’s preaching as “good news.”

          Herod, however, symbolizes those who find his preaching “bad news.”  John has held Herod accountable for his violations of the law and justice.  In particular, Herod’s marriage of Herodias is held up to scrutiny.  Not only had both left their previous marriage to be with each other, but Herodias had previously been married to Herod's half-brother, Herod Philip.  She is Herod's wife, sister-in-law and niece all in one (Barclay 1975:36)! John also points out other failures and sins of this ruler, lumping them together under the general rubric porneron ("all the evil”).
Rather than asking what he might do, as the others did when John exposed their sin, Herod tries to punish the messenger rather than face up to the message.  He attempts to muzzle the prophet by using his power to imprison John, whom he will eventually kill. Herod compounds his sin rather than dealing with it.  He thus places himself, and all who act similarly, under the threat of the near judgment of God John has announced.


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