The Good News (No, Really) According to John the Baptist and Luke
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
I’ve come to decide that the all-too-common distinction between being ‘prophetic’ and being ‘pastoral’ is not only false, but unfaithful.
Not sure that you can read Luke, especially this text for the third week of Advent, and come to any other conclusion.
“You brood of vipers” said few pastors from the pulpit ever, at least those who wanted to stay in that same pulpit.
But that’s what Luke tells us that John said from his wilderness pulpit, to those who had come to be baptized.
The amazing thing is that these folks actually sought out this sort of harsh language, and then, after being insulted in the name of God, they even lingered to get clarification on what John meant, exactly.
”So,” they said, “we’ve got some follow-up questions: what exactly does this ‘bear-fruits-worthy-of-repentace’ bit look like on the ground? Sorry: we’re concrete thinkers.”
”Well,” John said, “it’s like this: if you have clothes, and others don’t, you share them. Period. If you have food, and others don’t, you share it. Period. If you are into business, don’t defraud. Period. If you are in a position of power, don’t lie and extort. Period.”
There are no asterisks to these statements, like “if the naked are from this country,” or “if the hungry already have a job,” or “excepting Big Business and Wall Street,” or “unless you are the President of the United States,” or “providing that the political system which enables poverty and hunger and exploitation and lying isn’t disturbed.”
It’s clear cut: If you want to be baptized (and, for those of us who already are, if you want to live a baptized life), then you clothe, feed, act with integrity.
There is no bifurcation between faith and life.
Likewise, if you look at Luke’s retelling, there is no bifurcation between being prophetic (a word often used to mean speaking harsh truth) and pastoral (commonly understood to be comforting, and nice, and non-conflictual).
In fact, this text conflates the both.
The first part, the whole You-brood-of-vipers-God-isn’t-being-vague-or-wishy-washy-here-you-are-being-told-by-the-Almighty-to-share-clothing-food-and-don’t-rip-people-off-or-be-a-general-sociopath portion of the text, followed by that quite the fire-and-damnation-chaser, is wrapped up by this last part: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
The Good News?
Our first reaction might kick into a take on the Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
However, it might be, in fact, that we don’t know what that word means, and won’t, until we realize these two things:
First, Luke believed that just as the poor were to be redeemed of their poverty, so too were the rich to be redeemed of their wealth.
Neither poverty nor wealth are of the reign of God.
I’m going to write that again, because it is not just the fundamental message of Luke, but arguably of all of Scripture:
Neither poverty nor wealth are of the reign of God.
Some would call that notion ‘prophetic’ news.
Second, the notion of what is good news changes if you happen to be the naked one, or the hungry one, or the lied-to one, or the extorted one, and oppressed by one or all of these states not just by people but by a very system.
Clothes, food, honesty, and integrity sound like some pretty darn good news, not to mention deeply pastoral news too.
People who recoil from this text, who are offended by this text, who bifurcate faith and life and prophetic and pastoral are exactly the ones whom this very text and their very own baptized faith call to repent!
Like, literally, that’s what this text is saying: if you have, give. If you lie, stop. If you extort, knock it off.
Not theoretically, not back then, not if you feel like it.
Nope: if you are a baptized person of faith, that’s what you do.
Being freed of wealth and lies and power is good news.
Even if you are a viper.
And most of us, when you get right down to it, are.
For the one who has everything, or doesn’t want any thing, consider sticking a gift certificate to the Spent Dandelion or for an OMG Conversation under the tree or in the stocking! Click this link for the Spent Dandelion gift cards, and here for OMG.
The Spent Dandelion is now offering monthly retreats on various themes! Come for really good conversation, really good food, and really gorgeous North Shore beauty. Find out more here!
Check out the last couple of OMG blogs, while you’re at it!