Advent 3: 16 December Luke 3:7-18
Luke has described the birth and infancy of John and Jesus in matching parallels in Luke 1-2, from annunciation to circumcision and growing up. There is no mistaking that Jesus is the greater, but the parallel structure gives the clear message that the two belong together and that what John says is to be taken seriously. It is not that John’s teachings, let alone the Law and the Prophets, are to be left behind, as some have interpreted Luke. According to Luke 16:16 Jesus declares, ‘The Law and the Prophets were (what we had) before John; from then on the kingdom of God is being proclaimed and everyone is giving it a rough time.’ The next verse continues: ‘And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of the Law to fall.’
In other words, for Luke, there are new additions which stand in continuity with the past: the Law, the Prophets, John and, as the climax: Jesus. All remain valid. Exceptions like the circumcision command are intimated by heavenly intervention. The rest stands. John’s teaching remains valid. This explains also why Luke is careful to enunciate John’s teaching in ways that mean something for the churches of his day.
Luke has drawn on a small collection of sayings attributed to John the Baptist which is also found in Matthew in near identical wording (Luke 3:7-9,16-17; Matthew 3:7-12) and commonly understood as deriving from a written source they both share, called "Q" (from German, "Quelle", meaning "source"). Into this collection Luke has placed additional sayings (3:10-15), which he may himself have composed, consisting of three questions and a response to each, followed by a question about messiahship. The focus of these is on contemporary issues.
The focus of the "Q" material is on imminent judgement. The extraordinary thing about 3:7-9 is its inclusiveness. In a negative way it puts everyone at the same level. There is no religious privilege, not even in being one of the descendants of Abraham. Originally a challenge within the framework of Jews in Judea, the potential explosiveness of such thought is seen when Paul and some other early Christians transferred this kind of idea to the wider context of Gentiles. They then had to backtrack a little to explain what still remained of privilege for Israel (see Paul’s tortuous grappling with the issue in Romans 9-11).
John’s radical (negative) inclusiveness had two sides: it brought everyone before the challenge of submission to God’s grace and submersion in the Jordan to signify it; and it demanded of all nothing less than goodness in behaviour flowing from goodness of attitude. Repentance never meant remorse alone; it meant change away from one way of being towards another way of being. John was teaching that fruit is what counts.
The nexus of tree and fruit will also play a part in Jesus’ teaching. Indeed Matthew has Jesus repeat John’s warning word for word in the Sermon on the Mount (7:19). Matthew concludes Jesus’ public ministry with the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Jesus effectively expounds the same message: doing, action, behaviour, count. In fact all that counts is attitude and behaviour that flows out of a relationship with God. Claims to be Christian, confessions of Jesus as ‘Lord’, count for as little as claims to be ‘descendants of Abraham’. The same is implied in Luke, who will also recognise such attitudes and behaviours also outside Israel, indeed, even in the pagan world, exemplified by Cornelius, the centurion (Acts 10:1-2, 34-35).
Attitude and behaviour matter most. That is universal. If we push and pull the idea a little, we fairly easily reach the insight that this means everyone matters. The negative inclusiveness also implies a positive inclusiveness, such as we find in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. The challenge to all is also an invitation to all; no one is excluded.
But how does this work itself out in practice? People in Luke’s and John’s day would have described the attitudes and behaviours in terms of obedience to divine laws set out in scripture. How that emerged would depend on where the emphasis lay. The conflicts within Judaism of the time (including John and Jesus and most Christians of the first decades) were about where to put the emphasis.
Luke has made a point of noting that ritual laws, such as purification after childbirth, are not to be neglected (2:22-24, 27), but his emphasis lies elsewhere. Inspired by traditions which trace their origins to Jesus, such as the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan and the teachings about love towards one’s enemies, Luke adds 3:10-14 which enable us to see what he has in mind. 3:11 speaks of sharing clothing and food. At the simplest level this is social justice. In many churches the period of Advent sees special offerings for projects which give flesh and blood to this challenge.
Luke operates within the framework of society as it existed at his time and so acknowledges the place of tax collectors and the military. They are warned against abusing their positions, against exploitation. There is a nexus between exploitation and people needing food and clothing, even if Luke does little more than juxtapose them. It may be that Luke is being a little tame here, accepting the role of the taxation system and the military of his time. However we may assess that, as a historian and theologian he has worked to reconstruct an application of the future vision of the kingdom to his present reality, setting an example for us to follow. The vision of social justice (peace and salvation) which is at the heart of the cry for freedom and the prayer, ‘Your kingdom come!’ is also the agenda for the here and now in every aspect of life.
In 3:16-17 Luke return to his dramatic "Q" tradition which would have one expect that the fiery judgement was just around the corner, about to engulf (baptise) all in its fire and Spirit. Personnel becomes important. Through 3:15 Luke makes doubly clear that, for all his importance and the abiding validity of his words, John is not the Messiah. Jesus will take this role. Luke treats the material fairly conservatively. He might have smoothed out the difficulty that Jesus did not come waving a winnowing fork or brandishing fire. Instead he allows the predictions to stand. There was already a solution generated in Q, possibly reflecting actual history: John has his disciples check out the discrepancy and is told to be glad that transformation is happening now (7:18-24). Luke adds his own by portraying the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost as the fulfilment of the prediction that Jesus would baptise with Spirit and fire (Acts 1:5).
Luke worked creatively and in doing so stood in a living tradition which was life giving. John, including his John, has much to say to our contemporary world - ultimately also about the meaning of our baptism.
Epistle: Advent 3: 16 December Philippians 4:4-7