The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Advent 3 in Year C is Luke 3.7–17, and it follows closely on from last week’s reading; verse begins ‘He therefore said to the crowds…’ which some English translations omit. The content of his teaching raises some fascinating issues about repentance, judgement, and discipleship, and the way in which the teaching of the kingdom is (or is not!) radical and revolutionary.
It is not completely clear whether the linking ‘therefore’ points us back to the verses from Isaiah that Luke has just quoted, or the fact that John ‘preached a baptism of repentance…’ In any case, the two are closely linked together; as we noted last week, Isaiah’s message was that the one who prepared the way for the visitation of God to his people was to make the crooked straight, a metaphor for change and straightening of life.
John’s greeting to the crowd hardly looks encouraging! Language of ‘brood of vipers’ introduces a persistent theme in this section, that of fruitfulness. The language of ‘brood’, γέννημα, refers to ‘that which is produced’, the offspring, sometimes called ‘the fruit of the loins’; verses like Deut 28.4 link this with other kinds of ‘fruit’, of loins, of land, and of livestock. Whether you are the offspring of vipers, or of Abraham, will be shown by what your offspring is in terms of the kind of life you lead. The play on this idea continues right to the end of our passage, in that the language of ‘fruit’ in the New Testament includes reference to the grain of the harvest, which sounds odd to our ears. But in this way the question of who is our true ‘father’, what kind of life we lead, and how we will fare on the day of judgement are all linked together.
The term translated ‘viper’, ἔχιδνα, has entered English as the name of the spiny anteater, echidna, through an error of etymology—but is in fact a general term for snake which does not allow us to identify a species. In the Jewish and canonical context, snakes are associated with the work of Satan as primeval opponent of God, all the way from the Garden of Eden to the Book of Revelation (see Rev 12.9 which uses the alternative for snake ophis); in a Greco-Roman context, the idea of animal physiognomy would imply that, because a snake slithers on the ground, a snake-like person is ‘cruel, harmful, insidious…, terrible when it decides to be, quick to flee when afraid, gluttonous… Such men are… devoted to evil doing’ (cited in Parsons, Paideia on Luke, p 66). Either way, it is hardly flattering!
There is some irony in his question ‘Who told to flee the coming wrath?’ because, in a sense, it is John who has done so! It suggests that the proclamation of the kingdom of God by John and Jesus is both good and bad news, in that it both proclaims liberty to captives but also judgement for those who have not turned to God’s ways, where we, in contemporary discussion, often treat it as an unqualified blessing. Luke’s gospel is often pointed to as a narrative where judgement has been excised or postponed, particularly in relation to Jesus’ so-called ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in Luke 4—yet it is in this gospel that the fall of Jerusalem is most unambiguously associated with the judgement of God on his people for failing to show the repentance and response that John calls for here (see Luke 19.44).
(We should note, in passing, that the New Testament writers never describe God as ‘being angry’ with anyone; the language of ‘wrath’ as a noun signifies God’s steadfast holy opposition to all that is sinful, rather than being an emotion directed towards people with whom God is cross.)
The language of verse 8 makes it clear why the verse 7 began with a ‘therefore’; John is here expounding what his ‘baptism of repentance’ actually means. It is no mere rite, but is a visible sign of a change of heart and mind, leading to a change in life. (The idea that anyone ‘whether Christian or not, everyone has the right to ask their local parish church to provide baptism’ is a theological nonsense; spiritual life is not a medicine that can be doled out, as if the church was like the NHS!) Producing fruit is not so much about showing virtues or qualities, as much as acting in particular ways. That is true here just as much as it is in the well-known verses in Gal 5.22; the list there is of particular ways of conduct, as is shown by the contrast with the preceding list of the ‘works of the flesh’ (‘acts of the sinful human nature’) in Gal 5.19–21. The New Testament is consistent in portraying judgement as being on the basis of actions—note the repeated refrain in Rev 2 to 3, ‘I know your works’—since it is a changed life which is the unequivocal evidence of a changed heart. There is no separation here between the inner and the outer life, as if you could believe something without acting in a way that did not express it.
It is not present in the Greek text here, but behind John’s language there might be a pun on the language of ‘sons’ and ‘stones’, since in Hebrew a ‘son’ is ben and a ‘stone’ is eben. But the contrast of the ideas remains, in that sons or children are living people who come from the fruitful life of the parent, whereas stones are the epitome of lifelessness. God who is the source of life is able to bring life from that which is lifeless.
But John here raises a crucial issue most explicitly expounded by Paul in Romans 2: in contrast to what we might expect (from a certain way of reading the Old Testament), it is the response to the grace of God in repentance and obedience which truly determines your membership of the ‘offspring of Abraham’, and not your ethnic identity per se. In fact, this should not surprise us at all, since it is a repeated theme of the prophets; it explains why some of Israel are excluded from the promises of God, whilst many who are not part of Israel ethnically are included.
The image of the ax being ready to chop down the tree is another picture of judgement which reinforces the language of ‘wrath’ earlier; though no agent is mentioned explicitly, it is clear that God is the one who judges and so is the one who also wields the ax. This images connects both with Jesus’ later language in the parable of the fig tree in Luke 13.6–9, which in Matt 21.18–22 and Mark 11.12–25 is enacted by Jesus, as well as Jesus’ teaching in John 15 about branches that do not bear fruit being cut off and burnt.
Luke characteristically recounts the teaching to groups of people in the form of a dialogue, with the crowds responding to John’s provocative proclamation with the question ‘What, then, should we do?’ A similar questions is repeated by the toll collectors in Luke 3.12, the soldiers in Luke 3.14, a lawyer in Luke 10.25, a rule in Luke 18.18, the Jerusalem audience in response to Peter’s preaching in Acts 2.37, the jailer in response to Paul’s miraculous deliverance in Acts 16.30, and a zealous Jew in Acts 22.10. The action of the Spirit and the preaching of the kingdom consistently provokes a personal crisis which leads to the question of response; ‘the redemptive visitation of God demands response’ (Joel Green, NICNT on Luke, p 177).
Neither translations ‘tunic’ or ‘shirt’ really work for χιτων—which referred to the garment worn by women and men next to the skin, over which something heavier might be worn in colder times—simply because habits of dress have changed. The point is not about the particular garment, but about the need to share with others anything beyond the simple necessities of life. In the same way, the language of broma signifies food in general, and is used interchangeably with the term for ‘bread’ in the ‘bread of life’ discourse in John 6.
Jesus doesn’t have a beef with the Inland Revenue; we need to read the (traditional) language of ‘tax collectors’ in its social context. Taxes on land and on people under Roman rule were actually collected by local Jewish councils; the telones mentioned here were responsible for collecting what we might call indirect taxation—customs duties on goods, tolls and other duties. This would be particularly important on trade routes and at borders, so it is no surprise that they feature here by the Jordan and on the shores of Lake Galilee. The right to collect these tolls and duties was ‘privatised’ by the Romans, who gave the license to the highest bidders, so that there was both authority and motivation to exploit the situation as much as possible and charge the maximum. (Isn’t it a good job that, in the enlightened times we live in, such corrupt practices as giving such roles to the highest bidders would not be countenanced in a democracy…?)
The role and the way it was assigned made toll collectors hated as both wealthy and exploitative, as well as making them collaborators with the occupying power. Yet Luke’s focus on the ‘inclusive’ nature of the gospel means that the wealthy, compromised and corrupt are included in the gracious call of God to receive forgiveness and to amend their way of life.
There is no particular reason to think of the ‘soldiers’ mentioned here as Romans; they might equally well be Jews in the service of Herod Antipas, who ruled this region of Perea. John’s response fits the general temptations of those with (military) power who are able to take advantage of the local populace to their own personal advantage. (This kind of exploitation was such a problem that, according to Josephus, Julius Caesar had to issue a decree forbidding soldiers from extorting money from those living in the territories of the Jews; Antiquities 14.204 and 14.392, cited in Parsons, Paideia p 67). It is perhaps striking that John’s primary rebukes here relate to the misuse of power—financial, social, and military.
John condemns certain practices of the toll collectors and soldiers, but does not follow the tradition of the Jewish prophets in condemning unjust structures. Does that make his ethics compromised or bourgeois? Not at all:
John calls for a radical generosity in which everything beyond subsistence necessities is vulnerable to the claim of need. Jesus asks for no more. He adds only the clarification that such generosity is not only for those of one’s own group, but shows its true nature especially in being extended to the enemy (Luke 6.35–36) (John Nolland, WBC on Luke, p 149 cited in Parsons, p 67).
John’s proclamation ensures that his baptism is understood as an assault on the status quo, that to participate in his baptism is to embrace behaviours rooted in a radical realignment with God’s purpose (Green, NICNT, p 173).
Only Luke includes here the speculation of the crowds (the third mention of crowds/the people) that John might be the promised, anointed (Christos) one who would bring God’s deliverance to his people—but their understanding of who this would be appears at this stage to be quite unformed. The clarification of what this ‘Christ’ would do becomes one of the themes of the gospel.
There are several significant images of eschatological judgement in John’s response. First, the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out (‘baptism’ means being immersed in or overwhelmed by) is connect with ‘the last days’ in Joel 2.28. Although we might naturally associate ‘fire’ with the tongues of flame at Pentecost in Acts 2, but in fact it is an image of judgement, as the phrase ‘unquenchable fire’ makes clear. (Two interesting things to note here. First, the Greek term for ‘unquenchable’ is asbestos from which we get, well, asbestos! Second, fire is primarily an image of destruction, not torment.) John seems to expect Jesus to be one who will bring the judgement of God to his people and to the wider world.
In Luke’s gospel, there is a sense that judgment is postponed until the end of Jesus’ ministry, with an intervening period of grace creating an opportunity to respond. By contrast, Matthew is less reluctant to record the language of judgement in the teaching of Jesus, and this is particularly noticeable in Jesus’ six-fold use of the phrase ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ in Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51 and 25.30.
The coming of the kingdom of God means the coming of the longed-for presence of God with his people. But that will also mean a challenge to the reigning powers of this world, and the personal challenge to us: to whom do you owe your allegiance? Will you respond to the urge call to welcome what God is now doing, and change your ways and your priorities? And this challenge comes most sharply in the ministry of Jesus himself, who will one day return as judge and king over all the earth. For John’s hearers, there is practical action to be taking as they wait to meet the coming of God—and for us, too (as expressed consistently in the parables of Matt 24.36f and Matt 25), our patient waiting for the return of Jesus should be marked not by ‘looking for signs’ but simply by getting on with our Master’s business (Matt 24.46).
John is right about judgement and Jesus, with two important qualifications. The first is that this judgement is postponed—in the case of Israel until the destruction of the temple in 70AD, and in case of all humanity until the return of Jesus as judge at the end of the age. And the second qualification is that the basis of judgement shifts; for John it is avoided by repentance, baptism and the fruit of that change in tangible change of life. In Jesus’ teaching this is taken up into the question of decision about following him: judgement is no longer on the basis of being part of the ethnic Jewish people of God; nor on the basis of whether we change and begin to obey God’s just commandments; but it is now on the basis of being incorporated into the renewed people of God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and living a new life of holiness empowered by the Spirit. And all this is possible only because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection for us.