By Ched Myers, the 3rd Sunday in Advent (Luke 3:7-18)
Note: This is one of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2015-16.
The third week in Advent lingers on Luke’s portrait of John the Baptist, in which we get our most substantive glimpse into this wilderness prophet’s message (right, icon by Robert Lentz, 1984). This reading cuts sharply against the grain of the holiday season, so often defined in corporate-sponsored Christmas culture by commercialization and commodification of all things religious. But the Lectionary’s wisdom seeks to restrain the manic rush into what a young Jewish friend calls “the days of craze,” insisting rather on a sober look at the travails of empire.
Our reading can be divided into two parts: John’s “radical” analysis, and his practical exhortations.
- Going to the root of the pathology (Lk 3:7-9). The first part of our reading, presumably from the so-called “Q” oral tradition, pulls no punches. The Baptist’s unsettling sobriquet “brood of vipers” interrogates the sincerity of those who have come to be baptized by invoking the Psalmist’s lament:
Deliver me, Adonai, from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent, who plan evil things in their minds and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a snake’s, and under their lips is the venom of vipers. (Psalm 140:1-3)
Hardly a warm greeting to potential converts—yet a strangely accurate depiction of some of our politicians! This Psalm seems to have resonated for the early tradition; Paul too cites it in his indictment of human fallenness (Rom 3:13). *
In fact, such realism about the human condition in general—and the duplicity of political leadership in particular—is native to prophetic discourse in the Bible. Unlike most reformist rhetoric (then and now), the prophets understood the historic crisis of their people to be terminal, without radical change. Their call to repent, therefore, exhorts dis-continuity with the prevailing historical project and it delusions of national innocence and denial of culpability (see e.g. Is 6; Jer 7).
The late Second Temple prophet John the Baptist stood firmly within this tradition of what Dorothy Day called a “harsh and dreadful love.” According to the ancient historian Josephus, John was a militant Jewish nationalist who objected to the Hellenistic alliances of the Judean client-king Herod Antipas, who was busy selling out Palestine to the Roman Empire. But in today’s gospel John’s preaching also relentlessly attacks Judean ideologies of entitlement:
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit 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.” (Lk 3:7f)
Through a metaphor drawn from peasant agriculture, John offers a radical analysis of the system: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees” (3:9). This is not a moral exhortation to “be better,” but a historical ultimatum, directed primarily not to the private spirituality of individuals but to the collective vocation of a people. ‘Our entire way of life is headed toward destruction,’ it claims; ‘we must turn it around.’ And invoking a genealogy of “chosenness” cannot rescue a people from its own contradictions.
This is surely a poignant word to our own historical hour, as national leaders are gathered in Paris to try to face and reverse our relentless collective march toward climate disaster. It doesn’t look hopeful; as 350.org reports:
As we approach the final days of COP21, the battle is intensifying as countries and civil society push for a legally binding agreement that helps us get closer to ensuring a livable planet. Some of the biggest polluters are supporting a reference to a temperature limit of 1.5°C in the final Paris text. The US, France, Germany, the UK, China, India and even Canada have all backed the inclusion of the target this week. However, including mechanisms that would actually make this happen are another matter. Getting to 1.5°C would require getting leaving nearly all of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground and transitioning to 100% renewable energy… by 2030. But right now, the strongest target on the table in Paris is full decarbonization by 2050. (http://350.org/paris/)
Indeed, a discourse of repentance that calls for radical discontinuity with the social, economic and political order enjoys little hospitality today among the dominant culture churches in the U.S.—not concerning climate crisis, or epidemic gun violence, or Black Lives Matter, or endemic poverty. The reason is simple: for those entitled within the system, the greatest social value is continuity. From their perspective, the system basically works: it has no fatal flaws, no real competitors, and continues to spread itself around the world. This is why conversion—a theme once taken with some seriousness by 19th century Protestantism—is today either wholly marginalized (by liberals) or wholly spiritualized (by evangelicals).
Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall wonders, in a 1995 article titled “The Political Consequences of Misconceiving Sin,” what it might mean for dominant culture Christians in North America to rediscover “a hamartiology (doctrine of sin) that was truly—and not just rhetorically—biblical”? This Sunday’s dose of John the Baptist can help such a task. So too can Twelve Step traditions—because repentance as radical discontinuity resonates strongly with those in recovery from addiction (for more on this see my “Beyond the ‘Addict’s Excuse’: Public Addiction and Ecclesial Recovery”).
- Actual repentance is a practical, step by step journey (Lk 3:10-18). The genius of John’s message is that it brooks no sentimentality or compromise in its diagnoses, yet its prescriptive dimensions are concrete, not rhetorical. The question that arises from various groups in the crowd in response to John’s jeremiad represents a pointed refrain: “What must we do?” (3:10,12,14). This is the only proper embrace of a terminal diagnosis: to earnestly seek to change how we live. But transformation is a long march, and can only be accomplished step by practical step, starting with where one is.
John doesn’t offer platitudes: each of his exhortations is uncomfortably specific, unequivocal and demanding:
- The haves must share their surplus with the have nots (v. 11);
- The managers of the economic system must stop exploiting (v. 13);
- And the police/military apparatus must stop using their power to extort and line their pockets (v. 14b).
We should note two things about this short list outlining the “politics of repentance.” For one, each prescription overturns what were understood to be acceptable behaviors: property was assumed to be proprietary; in the ancient “tax farming” system, collectors by design took more than was owed as part of their compensation; and military authority was defined by bullying the populace and taking spoils as part of the pay package. So John’s standards were not aiming for a “kinder and gentler” Roman occupation; if embraced, they would begin a radical unravelling “from the roots.” This brings us to the other aspect: John has targeted three key areas in the ancient system of oppression that ruled in Roman occupied Palestine: economics, imperial extraction and politico-military domination.
This is, in other words, a program for a personal and political people’s revolution. Little wonder, then, that the authorities soon silenced the Baptist, who was arrested and executed as a dissident—something Luke editorializes that only “added to all the other evil things that Herod did” (3:19).
The synoptic gospels are unanimous that John and Jesus of Nazareth had a special relationship (intensified into blood kinship in Luke 1:5-25, 39-46). On one hand, Jesus comes to apprentice with the Baptist (see my blog on this site last year about the implications of Jesus’ remarkable choice for our discipleship today). On the other, John defers to Jesus as his prophetic successor (3:15f). So does John’s message here close the way it opened (3:9)—with an agricultural metaphor of coming judgement: “His 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” (3:17).
Jesus takes up the mantle of the martyred prophet, preaching repentance and the sovereignty of God (4:14ff). Moreover, throughout his ministry, he points to the example of John as “greatest among humans”—explicitly contrasting the wilderness prophet with Herod’s ruling class (7:24-26). From the latter’s perspective, John’s sharp denunciations and challenges hardly seem designed to “win friends and influence people.” But for Luke, these exhortations represented “good news to the people” (3:18).
As they grate upon our consciousness in churches bedecked with festive holiday ornamentation, let us remember that prophetic “tough love” seeks to intervene in delusional and addictive societies, for purposes of healing and liberation. May we have ears to hear it as good news.
* Apparently in the oral tradition the image of snakes was already linked, as here in Luke, to the agricultural metaphor of “good and bad fruit,” as we see in e.g. Mt 12:33-34. Matthew’s last of three (!) refrains of the viper image—“You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape the judgment of Gehenna? (Mt 23:33)—may allude to the farming practice of burning off stubble in the fields, which fires would flush out snakes (similar to Paul’s close encounter with a viper in Acts 28:3).