Luke Chapter 3: is full of confrontations and contrasts.
It begins with a definite focus on who is in power: who holds which powerful position, and where.
This places a strict emphasis on the earthly historical reality of Jesus’ life. No airy-fairy spiritual focus here!
There is some serious historical question about some of this, too, but as we have seen this is not Luke’s real concern. What is intriguing, though, is the naming of two High Priests.
Annas had in fact been deposed as High Priest by the Romans, in the year 15. His son in law Caiaphas was it. We can imagine the feeling in the community about this. Who is the real High Priest? What do we think of the one who agrees to take the office, when the rightly appointed one has been dumped?
There is a lot of irony here.
But it is into this situation that Luke simply says, ‘the word of God came …’
Against the background of political and religious subjugation, ‘the word of God came.’
And it came to John, who is in the desert or wilderness region. This is the locus classicus of God’s self-revelation to the ancient Hebrew peoples. That was where Moses first encountered God, in the bush burning, and where ‘the Law’ was first given; and many other images of the pilgrims returning across the desert, and so forth. In a subtle way, there is a contrast here between the city and the regions, and perhaps also between the religion of the Temple and the life of the prophet.
John’s message is a call for repentance and a promise of forgiveness. Drawing upon Isaiah, Luke (not John himself, as Mark suggests) speaks of preparing the way of the Lord. ‘all flesh shall see his salvation’: this is a remarkable and universal promise of salvation. Luke’s sense of God’s mission and purpose is richly inclusive—and this will be borne out in many ways through the whole gospel.
YET: John is not exactly polite, in his announcement of forgiveness. He calls the crowds ‘snakes’ and announces a coming wrath. There’s apocalyptic imagery here, with the idea that God will in some way force a great divide, between what and whom is to be saved, and what will be done away with.
On what basis, we might wonder. John suggests that repentance must be genuine: it must produce ‘good fruit’: and this fruit is not religious performance, but an ethic of communal responsibility.
Birth, heritage, nationality do not equate with righteousness, or ‘right relationship with God’. Rather, John speaks of sharing one’s food and clothing, the basics of life, with those in need, and not cheating on each other, or lying to one’s own advantage, and so on. The mention of ‘tax collectors’ simply emphasizes that this is a communal ethic: everyone is ‘in’ and everyone is expected to be part of this communal accountability and shared responsibility.
The question then arises: is John the messiah, the expected one, who will bring the nation back to right relationship with God?
There is more here to consider, in a later post.
John’s initial response is to compare his baptism with water to the immersion in the Holy Spirit and fire: the great divide again.
But all this is good news to the people! v.18
Then, John is imprisoned: this is recorded as another of Herod’s evil deeds. We are not told why John was imprisoned. Was John disrupting Herod’s regime (including his extraction of heavy taxes from the people?) Was Herod simply worried about dissent and unrest, and so felt he had to make a preventive strike?
We don’t know. We are left with the contrast, the confrontation of powers: The word of God has been imprisoned. What will become of the promised salvation?
This is not just a once-upon-a-time issue: today, also, this confrontation occurs. Many (including religious power-brokers) have an interest in locking up the word of God. The call to right relationships and authentic community is so easily marginalised.
What will become of the promised salvation?