A couple days ago I began a closer look through the Gospel according to Luke, reading through the first two chapters in an effort to really see some things that I may have missed before. Click here if you’d like to go back and check out that post.
Today, I’m looking at Chapter 3. While my first post ran almost 2,000 words, I’m hoping to keep these quite a bit shorter (which is always a struggle for me), so I’ll be focusing on one chapter today.
We learned a bit about John in the initial chapters, as his birth and ministry was prophesied by the angel Gabriel. In Chapter 3, we see his ministry in full swing. While John’s, well, unconventional lifestyle of living alone out in the wilderness is often a topic of discussion, I’ve found that in my own readings I’ve often glossed over his actual message. I typically just boil it down to a blanket, “REPENT!” and look at it as a pre-cursor pointing to Jesus.
However, John’s message is far more explicit. He called those who came to hear him to not only repent, but to produce fruit to reflect that repentance (8). Further, he challenges them not to rely on their identity as Abraham’s children as security for their status with God, instead saying “the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (9).
Here’s the key point, though: the people ask him what that looks like. And he answers.
“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” (11). When tax collectors (who were notorious for inflating tax figures and skimming money off the top) asked him what to do, he said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (13). Finally, soldiers asked him what to do, and he replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay” (14).
Tax collectors and soldiers were basically considered traitors among Jews, because they worked for the Roman empire that oppressed their people. Their fellow Jews looked down upon them and didn’t trust them, and the tax collectors and soldiers often warranted such reputations with their actions of using their authority with Rome to exploit the people for their own personal benefit.
So we have John speaking to Jews in general and then to the groups of people most notorious for treating their fellow citizens poorly. To the community at large, he says to share what you have, and he truly makes the point. He doesn’t say: “The man with 10 tunics should give one to the him who has none.” No, having a second tunic is more than you need, and if you have more than you need while there are others in your community that do not, he is calling you to repentance. This is not merely give a small portion of your extra; it’s literally share anything you have beyond your most basic needs.
To the tax collectors and soldiers, he calls them to be honest and not selfish. They have countless opportunities to take advantage of their authority for personal gain. He tells them not to.
The system that allowed them to profit was so heavily built in their favor, that it would be a consciously self-limiting decision to act with honor and not take advantage. It would throw away their opportunity to gain wealth through a system that was at the very least ignored if not fully endorsed by the ruling authorities. He tells them to instead act with honor and reject personal wealth in favor of benefiting their constituents.
Selflessness, generosity, and community-focused living that eschews personal wealth for the benefit of others despite institutional advantages that can easily profit the individual – this is the fruit John calls the people to produce. While I believe we far too often divorce the Bible from its context and intended audience in efforts to apply specific verses to our lives, the core of the message seems highly applicable today.
Further, when John tells of the coming messiah, he says that, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (17).
Immediately after John called the people to repent and bear fruit and explained exactly what that entails, he informed them that one would come who would hold them to account against those standards.
Reading through all that, I find it very convicting and, frankly, kind of terrifying. But here’s the thing: in the very next verse we are told that “with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them” (18). The message he delivered is good news. It is a message of hope to those who have been systematically beaten down by the authorities and to those who have been left with little or nothing.
If we read his words and find them scary rather than good, perhaps we need to reevaluate our status, lifestyle, and, as John would describe it, fruit.
Just as almost a throw-in at the end of this passage, Luke informs us that John’s ministry did not end so well: “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison” (19-20).
I almost glossed over that passage because I know that part of the story. But in the context of today, when many Christians claim Paul’s words to suggest that they should not speak out against words and actions of certain political leaders (although rarely hesitating to speak out against other political leaders), I point to John. He, without hesitation, spoke out. He spoke out against the immoral living of the ruler “and all the other evil things he had done.” And he paid the price for it. But the prophesied messenger of the messiah to come spoke out.
The second half of the chapter features the brief story of Jesus’ baptism, including the famous words from God above: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (22). Then the chapter concludes with the lengthy (paternal) genealogy of Jesus. While both are vital to the story of Jesus, neither includes specific details that stand out to me as things that have been overlooked. In no way is that to say there are none, just that in this moment I’m not seeing any.
So this seems like a good place to end for the day. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts on my observations as well as any other observations you found that I may have missed. We will jump into Jesus’ temptation and the beginning of his ministry next time!