The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
These two segments of St. Luke’s Gospel provide separate treasures of information about John the Baptist, messianic expectations, the apocalyptic tenor of the times, and even the early Christian Church in the sense that these texts were put to paper in a Christian milieu about a half century after the events described.
Our primary sources today are The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) and Joel Green (1997), whom I introduced in earlier entries. To make sense of the opening line of this Sunday’s Gospel, I have to point out a curious editorializing quirk in the Lectionary of the Mass. Last Sunday’s Gospel ends at Luke 3:6, the eschatological admonition to make straight the way of the one who is to come. For some reason the editors chose not to use verses 7-9, last week or this week:
3:7 So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 3:8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 3:9 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
So when we resume Luke’s text this week, it is important to remember that it was these threatening words that clearly agitated the crowd to cry out in verse 10, “Whatever are we to do?” This was not a catechetical question as much as a survival plea. John’s answer is intriguing both for its content and its categorizing of listeners. He advises all in the crowd to share what they have with those who have less; in this he is no different from the classical Hebrew prophets such as Amos, and thus no different from that prophetic line’s condemnation of the temple and the priesthood, and the loss of brotherhood that traditionally would have cared for the poorest members of the nation of Israel. One point in the excised text is John’s insistence that membership in the bloodline of Abraham did not make a man ipso facto a participant in the glorious fulfillment of the future; notice there is no mention of the Mosaic Law; John’s call is more radical and universal.
As he continues his words, John addresses himself to two groups at the very margins of established Jewish community, tax collectors and soldiers. It is no accident that later in Luke’s Gospel Jesus will famously invite himself to dine with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and that Zacchaeus would immediately pledge half of his belongings to the poor, just as John has directed in the opening of Sunday’s Gospel. Tax collectors (or toll collectors) were Jews in Roman employ, not only despised as sympathizers of the occupying Romans but ritually unclean from handling gentile coinage. The JBC identifies the “soldiers” as Jews attached to King’s Herod’s charge, possibly “enforcers” for the tax collectors. John’s specific charges to the soldiers mirror the efforts of Emperor Augustus to reform the tax collection system, known in that day for its corruption and verified in secular sources beyond the revealed texts of Scripture.
John has made a point to address himself to a segment of Jewish society despaired of and despised by mainstream Jewish authorities and regular temple-worshippers. He is—knowingly or unknowingly—projecting the mission of Jesus that Luke will so generously portray, outreach and mercy to surprising populations. Again, the JBC observes that in the early Christian mission Jesus and his successors will be shunned by mainstream Judaism but embraced by the commoners, the sinners, the marginalized, and mirabile dictu, Gentiles. So we get from this text a taste of how the early Church would have looked in terms of who would have embraced it.
The second paragraph of the Sunday Gospel takes a different road, the wonderment among the peoples if John himself was the Christ; the term Christ comes from the word for oil, “the anointed one.” In this context the reference is to an anointed agent of Yahweh sent for the restoration of Israel and the triumph of God’s power and dominion. There was not uniformity among the Jews about exactly who it was that would appear in the future; Mark, as you might recall, referred to this figure as “the Son of Man,” and Jesus identified himself in this fashion at several points in the Gospels. Catholics need to understand the Jewish situation with better precision; we are used to thinking of “Christ” as the term for the second person of the Trinity, but this term “anointed one” has a long Jewish usage, and took many years to finalize--with considerable nuance at that.
John the Baptist states for the record that he is not the Christ. He explains that his baptism has been a cleansing act of commitment for this yet to appear figure of judgment who will cut through the harvest with a sharp blade and hurl the imperfect into the blazing fire. This new figure on the horizon will baptize with the Holy Spirit (termed “the Spirit of God” in the Hebrew books) and with fire, a blazing, purifying agent.
John’s own picture of the “one who is to come” is, to put it mildly, dramatic and awe-inspiring, a figure who would, to quote Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” settle all family business. Later in Luke’s Gospel there will come a time when the gentle kindness and joyful ministry of Jesus would vary considerably from John’s expectations, and these strains will be explored by Luke further down the road. I do find it interesting that the Holy Year, opened by Pope Francis today, will coincide with Cycle C and St. Luke’s Gospel, a portrayal of Jesus as the paradigm of loving acceptance and forgiveness.