Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as 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.
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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:1-6 – NRSV).
“This is the beginning of the Lucan Gospel proper, not only because the account now begins to correspond to Mark 1 (and Matthew 3), but also because Luke explicitly so regards it in Acts 10:37: ‘starting from Galilee after the baptism that John preached’. See also Acts 1:22. It is the archē, ‘beginning,’ of the Period of Jesus. …. In the first section (3:1–6) of this preparation for the public ministry of Jesus there is redundancy. John now appears on the scene, introduced anew (3:2), almost as if we had not learned in the infancy narrative that he is the precursor of Jesus. Part of the redundancy is owing to Luke’s dependence on Mark 1:1–5, a source that lacks an infancy narrative. In that Gospel John’s appearance on the scene is a simple preparation for the public ministry of Jesus; but Luke’s story is more complicated because of its dependence on Mark and of the prefixing to it of the infancy narrative itself. It is also complicated by the view of the Baptist that Luke has, which is colored in part by the view of salvation-history that he has worked into his two-volumed composition” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Volume 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 450).
Each of the four Gospels tells of John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Messiah – apart from this text in Luke, see Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:1–8 & John 1:19–28.
All four Gospels cite Isaiah 40:3 in this context of John the Baptist’s preaching: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
Luke alone includes Isaiah’s words: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
But then Luke has ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’. The original text of Isaiah has: “‘Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’.”
Luke typically situates his narrative in time and place by reference to historical facts, although the “facts”, as Luke cites them, do not always match what we know from other sources. Luke is not trying to give us an exact dating, as for example a modern day historian might. He is merely emphasizing that he is telling a story within history. He wants the reader to know that Jesus is part of – and crucial to – our history. “The appearance of John is given an exact dating with an elaborate chronological synchronism reminiscent of Thucydides 2:2. Only the first phrase in v. 1 is necessary to fix the date; the remaining information is intended to give a rapid survey of the political situation at this crucial moment, and so to give the Christian gospel its setting in imperial and local history. John is presented in the manner of an OT prophet who commences to preach in the region of the Jordan, summoning his hearers to an act of repentance leading to forgiveness of sins. His work is seen as the fulfilment of Is. 40:3–5, which Luke quotes at length to show that nothing less than ‘the salvation of God’ is now being proclaimed” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978, 132).
From other sources, we know that Tiberius succeeded Augustus in 14CE, which would place the reference to John the Baptist around 28 or 29CE. Pilate was prefect in Judea 26-36CE (cf Josephus, Jewish War 2:169–174). The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who died in 4BCE (mentioned in Luke 1:5 but nowhere else in Luke). Herod Antipas was nominal ruler in Galilee from after his father’s death until 39CE (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2:94). Herod Antipas divorced his first wife to marry Herodias who had been married to his step-brother Herod II. Herod Antipas appears a number of times in Luke’s Gospel – see for example 3:19; 9:7–9; 13:31 and of course in the passion narrative, 23:7–15 – and Acts 4:27.
Luke’s reference, “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas”, is puzzling. He repeats this reference in Acts 4:6. Custom in fact dictated there would only be one high priest at a time. Josephus tells us (Antiquities of the Jews 18:26; 35; 95) that Annas was high priest from 6–15CE and was eventually succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas (18–36CE). Matthew has Caiaphas alone the high priest (26:3, 57), as does John (11:49; 18:13–28), but John also attests to Annas’ continuing influence and importance (John 18:13, 24).
the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness: This sentence is redolent with meaning. Moses encountered the burning bush in the wilderness and he heard God speak – see Exodus 3:1-15. The people journeyed for forty years in the wilderness – they were absolutely dependent on the word of God as these were uncharted places and they would simply die there without the guidance of the one who knew the way. Thus Hosea 2:14: “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” and Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”.
This attitude to “the word” continues in the early Christian community, though now it is transformed by their belief in Jesus as the Christ. Thus James 1:22: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing”. John refers to Jesus Himself as the Word – see the Prologue to John’s Gospel. See also Hebrews 4:12 – “the Word of God is alive and active ….”;
“The word of God” is a central theme in both Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. His Gospel begins by speaking of the “eyewitnesses who became witnesses of the word” – see Luke 1:2. Typically, Luke’s references to “the word” – mostly in the phrase “the word of God” – have rich theological significance. Thus for example, 5:1 (“the crowd was pressing in on (Jesus) to hear the word of God”); 8:11 (in the parable “the seed is the word of God”), 8:21 (“My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”); 11:28 (“Blessed are they who hear the word of God and obey it”); Acts 4:4 (“many of those who heard the word believed”); 6:2 (“it is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on tables”); 8:4 (“now those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the word); 19:10 (“all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord”).
One scholar sums up this theme in Luke-Acts: “It is through the prophetic word that God addresses the people. Luke emphasizes the power of this Word in Acts by showing it as deriving from the Holy Spirit and accompanied by signs and wonders. Indeed, the mission itself can be described as the Word of God expanding and growing (Acts 6:7; 8:14; 10:36; 11:1; 12:24; 19:20). In the interpretation of the parable of the sower, Luke has Jesus identify the seed explicitly as “the Word of God” (8:11) and the human response of faith is correspondingly defined in terms of “hearing” and “obeying” the Word of God (Luke 5:1; 6:47; 8:13–15, 21; 11:28).” (D J Harrington, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 23.)
proclaiming a baptism of repentance: The verb Luke uses to describe what John is doing is kēryssō – literally meaning “to proclaim” or “to announce”. It becomes a technical term for Luke, meaning to proclaim or announce the Good News – see for example 4:18–19, 44; 8:1, 39; 9:2; 12:3; 24:47; Acts 8:5; 9:20; 10:37, 42; 19:13; 20:25; 28:31.
Luke tells us that John the Baptist proclaims “a baptism of repentance”. The Greek noun translated here as “repentance” is metanoia. The English word “repentance” does not quite do justice to the meaning of the Greek word . Metanoia refers to an interior transformation, one that changes the heart and therefore our whole way of being in the world – our attitudes, dispositions, expectations, motivations and so on.
One scholar writes: “…. metanoia, …. literally means changing one’s mind or outlook. Although the lxx does not use it to translate the Hebrew teshubah, something of that sense of ‘turning back’ resides in the nt appropriation of metanoia (see Luke 3:8; 5:32; 15:7). ‘Forgiveness of sins’ as a result of conversion fulfills Gabriel’s prediction concerning John (1:77), and is for Luke a constant element of the good news (see 24:47; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 11:18; 13:38; 26:18).” (D J Harrington, op cit, 64.)
The use of the word baptisma is difficult to interpret. The word literally means “immersion” and it carries the idea of “initiation”. One scholar writes: “Deciding how the words go together is difficult; perhaps ‘conversion-baptism’ would be most accurate.” (Ibid) We could conclude that Luke is telling the people – and us – that when we are immersed in the life of Christ we will be transformed. The call to metanoia represents both gift and task therefore. The gift is the transforming life in Christ and the task is to cooperate as best we can. “Make me return that I might return!” (Jeremiah 31:18).
Luke follows Mark here – see Mark 1:4 (“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance …”). Matthew uses the same word – see Matthew 3:2 (“John the Baptist …. preached …. and this was his message: ‘Repent ….’”). John does not use the word metanoia here or elsewhere in his Gospel.
The Gospel writers are following the prophetic tradition with their emphasis on conversion of life. John the Baptist is like the prophets of old. For example, in Isaiah 1:16-17 we hear the prophet berate the people: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”.
In the prophets the emphasis on conversion of life is twofold: external behaviour and internal dispositions. Micah cries, “Justice, piety and humility” (6:8) and Zephaniah asks for “humility and sincerity” (2:3 & 3:12-13). But it is Jeremiah who develops the theme of conversion – both in terms of behaviour and dispositions – at great length. Jeremiah proclaims his message “so that everyone would return from his evil ways so that God might pardon” (Jeremiah 36:3).
One scholar writes: “The practical consequences of a change of heart did not at all escape the notice of the prophet (Jeremiah) (cf 7:3-11). He thus begins to doubt that a real conversion was possible. Those whom he called to conversion preferred to follow the hardness of their evil hearts (18:11f; cf 2:23ff). Far from deploring their wickedness, they sank further into it (8:4-7). That is the reason the prophet could proclaim only chastisement for inconvertible Jerusalem (13:20-27). His perspective of the future, however, did not remain less charged with hope. The day would come when the beaten people would accept the chastisement and would implore conversion of heart as a grace: ‘Make me return, that I might return!’ (31:18f). And Yahweh will answer this humble demand, for at the time of the new covenant ‘He will write the law in their hearts’ (31:33): ‘I will give them a heart to know that I am Yahweh; they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they will come back to me with all their hearts’ (24:7).” (Xavier Léon-Dufour SJ, editor, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, translated under the direction of P Joseph Cahill SJ, Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 431.)
Reflection – “The Church is always part of history”
In today’s Gospel – Luke 3:1-6 – the life and teaching of Jesus are given a very specific historical context. We have not always maintained that sense of being part of history. That has been a tragedy, because it is crucial to our understanding the Incarnation.
The Catholic Church, down the ages, has had a conflicted relationship with the human family. At the closure of the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 1965, Pope Paul VI observed that the Catholic Church “in previous times, in the past, and, above all, in the present century was absent and cut off from human culture” (History of Vatican II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo et al, Volume V, Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006, 475). The expression often used was “siege mentality”.
That dramatically changed at the Second Vatican Council. The “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” – better known by its Latin title, Gaudium et spes – begins with words that have become emblematic of the Council: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. …. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
An understanding of the Catholic Church as ahistorical prevailed in 1960. An understanding of the Church as thoroughly historical was recovered by the Second Vatican Council.
One of the more significant consequences of this shift is the challenge to move from “telling” towards “conversation”. “Telling” assumes one has the answers and one is “right” – even that one cannot be wrong. Such a disposition makes one vulnerable to arrogance and pride and triumphalism. It also builds barriers to transparency and honesty, especially when one is called to face one’s limits and even sinful actions. There is too little allowance for the Spirit to move where she will in such a situation.
“Conversation”, on the other hand, assumes one is a pilgrim, a searcher, always willing to journey with other pilgrims and searchers. Such a disposition opens one to humility and constant conversion – implied in the very word, “conversation”. It inclines us towards transparency and honesty, making it more likely that we will acknowledge our mistakes, face our limits and seek forgiveness for our sinful actions. There is more room for the Spirit to move where she will in such a situation.
Reflecting on the Council in 1966, Joseph Ratzinger called it a “spiritual awakening. … the new life that had been awakened in this encounter of the Church with its inner self. … the awakening of the Church. …. involves also a mission and a challenge – one that will require great patience, the patience which comes from faith” (Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, New York: Paulist Press, 1966, 132).