Commentary on Luke 3:1-22
Luke’s readers have been well prepared for John the Baptizer’s arrival on the scene.
Three authoritative speeches have already announced John’s role in the events that are unfolding, echoing the words of Malachi concerning the messenger God will send to “prepare the way” (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6).
The angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah about the child with whom he and Elizabeth will be blessed, who will be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” With “the spirit and power of Elijah,” he will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:15b-17).
Elizabeth also testifies to her son’s role in the events unfolding when, filled with the Holy Spirit, she interprets the child’s leaping in her womb (1:41-44). Finally Zechariah is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:67) and prophesies concerning his son’s role in God’s coming salvation: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” (1:76-79)
The Word in the Wilderness
After Zechariah’s speech, the narrator adds concerning John: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (1:80). “The day” of John’s public appearance arrives at the beginning of chapter 3.
In the manner of Old Testament prophetic books and Greco-Roman historians, Luke anchors his story in political history (in this case the reality of Roman occupation), naming the ruling powers of the day. Emperor Tiberias is named, along with Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, the Herodian rulers (aristocratic collaborators with Rome), and the chief priests Annas and Caiaphas, presiders over the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem.
During the reign of these formidable rulers, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (3:2). We should not miss how subversive this is. The word of God comes not from imperial Rome or even from Israel’s religious establishment. It comes not from someone dressed in fine clothes in an expensive palace, nor from someone inside the Jerusalem Temple. God’s word comes to a wild and wooly man in the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its halls of power. (See Jesus’ commentary on this paradox in Luke 7:24-28.)
The ministry and message of John recall the words of another prophet — those of Isaiah to God’s people in exile. Isaiah speaks of “one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (3:4; Isaiah 40:3). Mark and Matthew also quote Isaiah 40:3, but Luke expands the quotation to include Isaiah 40:5-6 and the promise that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6).
Fruits of Repentance
Thus far all sounds like good news. Yet when John begins to speak, the tone of the narrative shifts abruptly. Rather than welcoming those who come to be baptized, John rebukes them: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He cautions the crowds not to rely on their ancestry to save them, and warns that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (3:7-9).
In Matthew, John addresses the “brood of vipers” speech to the Pharisees and Sadducees, but in Luke, John addresses the whole crowd. While it is difficult to imagine a contemporary audience sticking around for such a sermon, in Luke’s story, people take his message to heart. “What then should we do?” they ask (3:10; cf. Acts 2:37). John’s response is simple and direct: share your food and clothing with those who are in need (3:11).
Luke tells us that “even tax collectors came to be baptized,” and that they too asked John, “Teacher, what should we do?” and that soldiers among the crowd asked the same question. Thus Luke highlights the responses of two despised groups in Israel — tax collectors and soldiers — both viewed as traitors for cooperating with Rome and using their positions and power to enrich themselves. So John tells the tax collectors, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to the soldiers he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages” (3:12-14).
John’s ethical teaching is hardly revolutionary. He counsels nothing more than the law requires concerning just treatment of the neighbor. His baptism of repentance is but a preparatory baptism to turn the hearts of the people to the Lord their God, to prepare the way for the more powerful one who is coming. This one “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” John says. He “will gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:15-17). The narrator adds that with many other exhortations, John “proclaimed the good news to the people” (3:18).
Judgment and Good News
The elements of law and judgment in John’s exhortations are obvious. The more difficult challenge for the preacher may be to find and proclaim the “good news” in John’s message.
Those who enjoy power and privilege often forget that God’s judgment is good news because it means that God cares about justice. It means that God cares about the poor, the vulnerable, the victims of injustice, and that God intends to right the wrongs of this world. This is indeed good news for those who are downtrodden.
God’s judgment is also good news for tax collectors and sinners (like us). For they (and we) are given the opportunity for repentance, forgiveness, and newness of life. Repentance (metanoia) means a complete change of mind or reversal of direction. For tax collectors, soldiers, and everyday sinners, it means turning from self to the needs of the neighbor.
Jesus will repeatedly scandalize the pious by associating with tax collectors and sinners, going to their homes and eating with them. He will even visit the home of one of the most notorious — Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who had become wealthy by defrauding others. Zacchaeus will respond by vowing to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone he has defrauded fourfold. Jesus will announce, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:1-10).
John’s message is good news because he prepares the way for Jesus. He announces the coming of God’s salvation, even to tax collectors and sinners, and proclaims that even from hearts of stone, God is able to raise up children of Abraham. John’s message is good news because he points to the One more powerful who is coming, the Messiah who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Luke does not tell us who baptizes Jesus. He narrates Jesus’ baptism after telling us that Herod threw John in prison because he rebuked Herod for taking his brother’s wife (3:19-22). This is a stark reminder of the risk inherent in proclaiming God’s reign, and of the fate awaiting John (9:7-9). Later, from the depths of prison, John will question whether Jesus really is the one who is to come (7:18-20). Perhaps John was expecting more fire and brimstone, a more obvious turning of the tables. Jesus will tell John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (7:21-23).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
With joy and awe we praise you for claiming us as your sons and daughters, and for pouring your Holy Spirit upon us. Help us to prepare this earth for your glory, and shine your light on all your faithful children, for the sake of the one whose birth and baptism brought renewal and transformation to this world, Jesus Christ. Amen.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry ELW 249, H82 76
Songs of thankfulness and praise ELW 310, H82 135
O Morning Star, how fair and bright! ELW 308, UMH 247, NCH 158
How bright appears the morning star H82 496, 497
Gloria! Carolyn Jennings