Commentary on Luke 3:7-18
It would appear, according to Luke, that John is an “old school” preacher, delivering in these verses a sermon composed of “three points and a poem.”
Point 1: Eschatological warning (verses 7-9).
Point 2: Ethical exhortation (verses 10-14).
Point 3: Messianic expectation (verse 15-17).
Poem — Okay, this is from the pen of Luke, not the mouth of John: All of this is “good news” (verse 18).
Luke varies little from Matthew in his first and third points, except that in Luke’s account John preaches not to the Pharisees and Sadducees but to the “crowds” (a point that will take on greater significance later).
Otherwise, John’s message is standard prophetic fare, material that one would anticipate from any prophet worthy of the name. Regarding eschatological warning: judgment is near, and that judgment will not be determined on the basis of religious, cultural, or ethnic identity but rather on the conduct of one’s life. Regarding messianic expectation: one who is greater and who baptizes not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire is coming, and his coming will initiate the eschatological judgment. In both of these regards, John stands as the latest — and, according to the New Testament authors, last — in a long line of Israel’s prophets.
In narrating for us John’s second point regarding ethical exhortation, however, Luke goes far beyond Matthew. Rather than either shrink back from or be angered by John’s warning (common responses to prophetic discourse), the crowds instead ask a refreshingly pragmatic question: “What then shall we do?”
It is the same question the crowds listening to Peter on Pentecost ask (Acts 2:37) and, as in Acts, Luke uses it to provide the preacher an opportunity to get to the heart of his sermon. In Acts, Peter invites the crowd to repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and receive the Holy Spirit. In these verses, John gives concrete ethical instruction to those gathered, and the content of that instruction is rather surprising. After announcing impending eschatological judgment with some vim and vigor, John’s counsel seems fairly ordinary, even mundane. To the (presumably poor) crowds: “Share.” To the tax collectors, “Be fair.” To soldiers, “Don’t bully.”
This feels more like the stuff of Kindergarten than Apocalypse. Which may be Luke’s point. Fidelity does not have to be heroic. There are opportunities to do God’s will, to be God’s people, all around us. These opportunities are shaped by our context: the roles in which we find ourselves and the needs of the neighbor with which we are confronted. But make no mistake, opportunities abound. John may have come from the wilderness, but the crowds — and we — live in the towns, villages, and marketplace, and these, too, can be places of testing and the arenas in which we offer our fidelity to God through service to neighbor.
More surprising than the content of John’s ethical instruction is his audience. They are more than ordinary; they are, at best, the riff raff: poor crowds with little to offer, despised tax collectors who profit from the oppression of their countrymen, mercenary soldiers known for extorting the vulnerable. Yet they are not excluded from John’s attention or the possibility of “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.”
This explains Luke’s variance from Matthew in his depiction of John’s unlikely congregation. Luke is less interested in contrasting the ministry, mission, and message of John and Jesus with that of the Pharisees and Sadducees than he is of stressing that their message is for all people. If John instructs, rather than condemns, the lowly poor, the corrupt tax collector, and the bare knuckled mercenary, then who, one might reasonably ask, is excluded. The answer, as it turns out, is no one. John preaches to all, Jesus comes for all. Apparently, when Luke quotes Isaiah as saying that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” (3:6), he really means it.
Most peculiar still, perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits. Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism. Even in light of impending eschatological judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions. By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid eschatological warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.
In the city museum of Braunschweig, Germany, hangs a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger depicting just this scene. Cranach’s John is a hairy, muscular, roughhewn man who stands on a gnarled and burnt tree stump pointing toward Christ with one hand and lecturing the crowds with the other. But while John is portrayed fiercely, those listening to him are eager, even glad, to receive what John offers. Why? Cranach explains by stretching a banner beneath the scene that contains the verse that inspired his work: “And soldiers also asked him, ‘And what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
Caught between eschatological judgment and messianic consummation, the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither renunciation nor asceticism, neither pilgrimage nor sacrifice. Rather, participating in God’s new kingdom is available to them where they are, requiring only the modicum of faith necessary to perceive the sacred in the ordinary. It is, in short, entirely within their reach: “Share. Be fair. Don’t bully.”
It may not be heroic, but it is something they can do. It is something, when you think about it, that anyone can do. Which means that it is something we can do, too.
“So with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Good news, indeed.
December 13, 2009