Flinders Ranges under cloud Nov 2014. North of Merna Mora on the way to Brachina, looking east.

Advent Study: Week 3

The Gospel for Week 3: Luke 3:7-18

In the last study, we saw how the story has been divided in two by the lectionary. So I have included some of last week's reading in the square brackets for context:

[3(John) went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight. 
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth; 
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ]

7 John 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 axe 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.’

10 And 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.’

15 As 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.’

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Responding to the text
What are your emotions after reading this? Boredom, confusion, anger, fear, curiosity…. ?

Imagine we had to get the text above on to the front page of the news sheet! What would we leave out? All that padding we removed to produce the Pilgrim Church Condensed Version is where the author has taken the basic tradition and added layers of meaning.

Repetition: In this text we have crowds, and sharing.  Can you find other repetition? One thing that might not strike us as repetition is the reference to tax collectors and soldiers! This list (repetition) is a list of "not nice" people; aka sinners.  What does this repetition tell us?

Trees: 
whoever:
also a repetition of "not nice" people— tax collectors and soldiers:

Names and Titles and actors
Who are the players in this drama? What are the titles?

Herod,
Soldiers,
tax collectors,
the people,
crowds
whoever….

Can you find others?

Herod the ruler
brood of vipers…
children of Abraham
offspring of Abraham…

Can you find others?

Brood of vipers: "Name calling involves accusations of deviance. If made to stick in public, negative names undermined a person's or group's place in a society and threatened ostracism or expulsion. "Brood of vipers" (literally, " offspring of snakes," "snake bastards") would be as insulting a label as one could imagine in a society in which social standing and the honor bound up with it are fundamentally a function of birth." (Malina and Rohrbau. Social Science Commentary)

Do you see how children of Abraham is a contrast to brood of vipers? Does societal honour and standing count for anything in John's understanding? What counts for John?

What is the role of each player? How would you feel if you were part of the establishment, and belonged to the "good" people of the land, after you heard this? They get really bad press.

Place
Where does the action happen? This is the same question we asked last week, and it seems like there is no specification to the place except that he speaks of the crowds who came out… What might that mean? Who does not come out? In what place do they stay?

Left Jerusalem,
left the establishment,
left the place of corruption.
Only Herod is not there!

Method
A part of what "classic" literature offers us is a multi-valency or multiple levels of meaning. It sparks imagination. No one ever has the full answer. Someone might say, "You're only imagining it!" and that could be true. We may be reading into the text (eisegesis) instead of reading out of the text (exegesis). And we should be careful of reading too much in. But what we read in, even if it is quite wrong, should lead us to ask, "Why? What does what I see here say to me about me, and where I am in life?" 

The Action and context
We were told in the previous reading that John had a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." This is what Malina says about forgiveness of sins:

In an honor-shame society, sin is a breach of interpersonal relations. In the Gospels the closest analogy to the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts (Matt. 6:12; see Luke 11:4), an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family. It made persons poor, that is, unable to maintain their social position. Forgiveness would thus have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one's place in the community. Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist, it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. (On Luke 3:1-20)

Can you see how the response John demands of people brings restoration to one's position? Think back to Isaiah 40: this was Israel "being divinely restored… and freed from fear of loss at the hands of God!"

Baptism in Jesus' time was washing signifying purification or consecration.

In Mediterranean antiquity, water, fire, and spirit (literally, wind) were liquids that could be poured out or poured into someone (=infused). "Baptism" is a transliterated word meaning "dipping" in a liquid, whether water, fire, or wind. John the Dipper's river dipping "for repentance," would have taken place after the rainy season, when the water of the shallow Jordan was deep and warm enough for people to step into the river. The dipping in "holy wind" and "fire" by the one "who is coming" is a dipping of judgment as the winnowing wind separates the chaff, which is then burned (as fuel, in cooking or brickmaking - never for heating, except in the baths of the wealthy) (Malina)

Question:   If you were a Jewish or Christian person in the time of Luke, what might these words about baptism in spirit be saying to you? How would you feel?

Do you remember being baptised? What did it mean for you?

What is the difference between John and the "one who is more powerful than I?"


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