Luke 3: Is John the Baptist’s News Really Good?

It’s often striking, the discrepancy between what gets called “Good News” in the Bible and what we who read it think of it.

Luke’s third chapter is not very long and a lot of it seems kind of boring, because it’s primarily about setting the scene for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Amidst an opening that sets the contemporary scene of local political and religious leaders and a closing that recounts a genealogy of Jesus, there’s a short synopsis of John the Baptist’s ministry, continuing the parallel of John and Jesus that starts the story. 

(With apologies to those who believe that the divine inspiration of Scripture extends to factuality, the opening historical references definitely aren’t reconcilable to contemporary histories, and the genealogy includes lots of unverifiable references as well as significant differences from Matthew’s version. If you need to try to find ways to make Luke’s history true, from a factual sense, I won’t stand in your way, but I’m sticking with the larger point that Luke didn’t write his Gospel as a modern history; his claims aren’t bound by whether they are verifiably accurate, but by whether they set the scene. Jesus was a real person at a particular time and place. And using a convention (genealogy) that would have been understood by contemporary readers in the Greek world and drawing on the lineage of the Hebrew world, Jesus traces his origin back to the beginning of humanity and to God Himself. That’s the point of all those hard-to-pronounce names.)

But it’s in the in-between that there’s a challenging stretch worth noting. I can never read John the Baptist’s preaching in the Gospels without hearing the Southern translation of The Cotton Patch Gospel, the Tom Key musical with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin. (For which, sadly, I’ve never found a DVD.) If you can find a copy of a performance somewhere, go get it; all we have is a slightly warped VHS tape, the script, and the soundtrack on iTunes. It’s worth all of that, and more. John the Baptist is a manic, rockin’, country preacher complete with his own chainsaw.

What grabs me here, though, especially after finishing James so recently, is what John says between his fire-and-brimstone threats. After calling his listeners “sons of snakes” and threatening them with getting cut down and thrown in the fire like a fruitless tree, he gets asked “What should we do?”

“Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.” (3:11) If you’re in a position of political authority, don’t use it to enrich yourself. If you’re in a position of military or police power, don’t use it to shake down the people you serve. Be content.

That’s striking for at least three reasons. First, I have more than two shirts and enough food, and my guess is if you opened your closet and pantry, you’d find the same. We know people, whether they’re in Lake Charles, La., or Kampala, Uganda, who literally can’t say that. Plus many more in our own communities who are jobless and at risk of eviction. This is not a theoretical command, this sharing thing.

Second, Luke’s John is hyper focused on greed as the barrier between us and righteousness. (Luke is the only gospel-writer to include John’s ethical message.) Sure, John loses his head for criticizing the adultery of the local ruler, but in this only section that puts ethical commands in John’s mouth, they are all about greed: taking more than is yours, holding on to more than you need, denying those who have real needs. For Luke’s John, this isn’t one of a long list of sins; this is the heart of all sin.

Third, John’s hard message is received as Good News. “People’s hopes began to rise,” (3:15). “In many different ways John preached the Good News to the people and urged them to change their ways,” (3:18).

For those of us who are comfortable, with enough shirts and enough food, this doesn’t land as such good news. But if John is right, and the divine chainsaw is already revving up, we should learn to embrace it.

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