A Provocation: Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2018: Luke 3:7-18

Luke 3:7-18
7 He kept saying 
to the crowds who came out to be purified by him:
     Birthing of snakes.
     Who warned you to flee from the dawning wrath?
8         Make,
          fruit worthy of mind-changing.
          Do not begin to say among yourselves:
               A father we have:
          For I say to you all:
               He is able,
                    Elohim (the God Whose Name is Regularity),
               out of these rocks,
                    to raise children to Abraham.
9         Already even the axe to the root of the trees is laid.
               Every tree not making good fruit is cut out,
                    into the fire it is thrown.
10   They kept asking him,
          the crowds did,
     they said:
          What should we do?
11   He answered,
     he kept saying to them:
          The one having two coats:
               Share with the one who has none.
          The one having goods:
               Do likewise.
12   They came,
          even tax gatherers,
     to be purified.
     They said to him:
               What should we do?
13   He said to them:
          Nothing beyond what is set to you.
               Beyond that, do nothing.
14   They asked him,
     they said:
          What should we do,
               even we?
     He said to them:
          Rob no one,
               neither be an informer,
          and let your wages be enough.
15 Because the host was expecting
   and discussing all in their hearts about Yochanon
        whether he might be the meshiach,
16 he answered,
        he said to all
   Yochanon did:
             with water
        I purify you all.
        He is coming,
             the one who is stronger than I.
                  I am not adequate to loose
                  the thongs of his sandals.
        He will purify you all
             in breath
             and in fire.
17      His winnowing shovel in his hand
             to cleanse his threshing floor,
             to gather the grain into his storehouse,
                  the chaff,
                       to burn in fire,
                            unquenchable fire.
18 Many things and others he called to witness.
        He kept speaking good news to the host. 

A Question or Two:

  • Interpreters often pay more to John’s words about vipers than to his specific instructions to people.
  • Why?

Some Longer Reflections:

Some odd little notes:

  • At the beginning of the scene, the storyteller refers to the people who came out to hear John as an ὄχλος, a “crowd,” an ungainly agglomeration of random people.  By the end, the term has changed.  The storyteller calls them a λαός.  The NRSV translates this as “people,” which is unfortunate because “people” in customary American usage means about the same thing as ὄχλος.  They are random humanoids, not necessarily anything more than that.  The word λαός refers to the called and chosen people of God, the host of Israel, a people charged with being salt and light in a world that needs hope and preservation.
  • The crowds came out to be purified.  From John’s response to them, it would appear that they imagined that this would involve feeling real contrition over their misdeeds, perhaps even feeling deep remorse.  John tells them to “bear fruit worthy of mind-changing.”  I translate μετανοία, not as “repentance” (which sounds entirely too pious and ineffectual to me), but as “mind-changing.”  My translation has the same problem as the NRSV: both can be read as simple inner matters, private feelings.  But νους (the noun behind the -νοία in μετανοία) refers to that active human function by which we aim all of our actions.  We plan with the νους, but we also carry out those plans by means of the νους.  The word refers to the life we act out.  And that is precisely how John uses it.
  • The crowds understand this.  After hearing John, they ask, “What should we do?”  Not, “How should we feel?”  Or, “What should we believe?”  They ask about doing.  And that is the question that John answers.  But notice the straightforward practicality of his answer.
    • The one having two coats: Share with the one who has none.
    • The one having goods: Do likewise.

Faithfulness consists in being aware of the needs of the people around you, being aware and then doing something about it.  Notice that John doesn’t suppose that anyone needs two coats.  Think about that.  This isn’t a call to become a minimalist, however.  John is simply saying that everyone needs a coat, and if you have to look like a “minimalist” to get that done, then share your extra coat.  We all need a coat.

  • John’s practical advice also applies to tax gatherers.  These people collected Roman tribute, the price of being a conquered people.  Their neighbors looked on them as traitors, and for good reason: they collaborated with the enemy.  John does not view them as enemies.  Here, as is the case throughout Luke’s story, the storyteller finds observant Jews where you’d least expect to see them.  John seems to imagine that these people, being observant Jews, must have been trapped into doing something they hated.  “What should we do?” they asked.  John’s advice is badly translated in the NRSV (and in almost all interpretation).  The translators have begun with the assumption that the tax gatherers are thieves as well as traitors, and that they therefore ought no longer to collect more than was due.  John assumes no such thing.  He tells them to do what was called (starting in the 1930s labor movement) “working to rule.”  “Only do what they tell you to do,” he says, knowing that this would make the vaunted Roman system of imperial domination grind to a halt.  “Force them to write an employee manual so long that they run out of paper,” he says.  “They believe that they are superior to you,” he says, “Act as if that were true.”  “If they don’t tell you to bring the tribute in money boxes or cash bags,” says John, “Don’t.  Turn in heaps of pennies.  If people pay you in chickens or goats, turn in the livestock.  Let the Romans figure out how to feed their tribute.”

Even the tax gatherers were enlisted to resist Roman domination.  Soldiers, too.  Everywhere you look in Luke’s story you see people who are waiting and praying for God to turn the world right-side-up.  John tells them to start the turning.

I will remember this the next time I feel the need to complain about political corruption or administrative blundering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s