Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
And the crowds asked (John), “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers 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.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John 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. 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.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people (Luke 3:10-18 – NRSV).
Luke – like Matthew 3:1-12 – is dependent on Mark – see 1:1-8.
Luke “freely omits and adds material” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 66).
Significant additions by Luke to Mark’s account are found in John’s message on repentance (metanoia) (3:7-9) and the saying on the winnowing fan (3:17) plus the detailed moral instructions to particular groups: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’. Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you’. Soldiers 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’” (Luke 3:10-14).
A significant omission by Luke from Mark’s account, is the reference to the way John the Baptist lived and dressed: “Luke omits the description of the Baptist’s ascetic mode of life (see Mark 1:6), probably because of the emphasis put here on ethical reform and concern for one’s neighbor. Even the essentials of life, a tunic to wear and food to eat, are to be shared with one’s less fortunate neighbors. Such a mode of preaching fits in with Luke’s counsels in general on the use of material goods” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 469).
“However important John’s own message, Luke follows Mark in defining John’s role primarily as the precursor to the Messiah. Luke has him explicitly eschew that designation for himself, and point to a stronger than himself whose baptism would be in spirit and fire (3:16), a literary prophecy that will reach fulfillment only in Luke’s account of Pentecost. John describes himself as an unworthy servant of the one to come (3:16). Most of all, by having John imprisoned before Jesus’ public emergence, Luke establishes a sequence between the prophets. Jesus’ anointing with the Spirit is perceived by the reader as following after John’s ministry rather than overlapping it” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 67).
tax collectors: Probably those who collected tolls on the roadside – indirect taxes – under the supervision of people like Zacchaeus – see Luke 19:2. They are rejected by the rest of the Jews – see 15:1-2 and 19:2. Interestingly enough they accept both John the Baptist and Jesus himself – see Luke 5:27 & 29-30, 7:29-30 & 34, 15:1-2 and 19:2.
the Messiah: Literally “the anointed”. David is referred to as “the anointed” (māšîaḥ) – see 2 Samuel 23:1-17. The Greek form of this Hebrew word, māšîaḥ, is Messias. For at least two hundred years before the birth of Jesus, “there had crystallized in Palestinian Judaism such an expectation. It developed out of the David-tradition in Israel, especially as this was presented in the Deuteronomist: David as the zealous worshiper of Yahweh, ‘chosen’ by him to rule over Israel in place of Saul (2 Sam 6:21) and favored not for himself alone, but insofar as his kingly role would affect all Israel. The oracle of Nathan (2 Sam 7:14–17) and the ‘last words of David’ (2 Sam 23:1–17) reveal Yahweh’s promise of a dynasty and explicitly refer to the historical David as ‘the anointed’ of the God of Jacob. That title of David is repeated in the Psalms (18:50; 89:39, 52; 132:10, 17). Jeremiah, who confronted the last of the Davidic kings before Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion, announced that Jehoiakim would ‘have none (i.e. no heir) to sit upon the throne of David’ (36:30); but he was also the prophet who uttered the promise of a ‘new covenant’ (31:31) and proclaimed the divine assurance that the people of Israel would ‘serve Yahweh their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them’ (30:9). This ‘David’ was no longer the historical David, but a future occupant of the throne to be raised up by Yahweh. This ideal king will be a ‘David’ (Jer 33:15; Ezek 37:23–24). But in all these promises of a future, ideal ‘David,’ the title māšîaḥ is strikingly absent. The title occurs but twice in all the prophetic books: once applied to Cyrus, the Persian monarch (Isa 45:1); once to the reigning king of Israel, or perhaps to Israel itself (Hab 3:13). Though reference be made to the oracle of Nathan, ‘the coming of a messiah’ is never the phraseology used to announce the hope of a restored kingdom of David. The same absence is noted in the postexilic rewriting of the David story (compare 2 Sam 7:12, 16 and 1 Chr 17:11, 14). The first clear mention of māšîaḥ in the sense of a future anointed agent of Yahweh in the Davidic line is found in Dan 9:25, ‘from the going forth of the Word to restore and build Jerusalem to (the coming of) an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks.’ (We prescind here from the problems of interpretation—to whom this would refer; we note only the implied future context in which the title appears.) This Danielic usage, along with various references to ‘anointed figures’ in Qumran literature (1QS 9:11; 1QSa 2:14, 20; CD 20:1; 4QPBless 2:4; 4QFlor 1:11–13; 4QpIsaa 8–10:11–17), which attest the Essene expectation of Messiahs of Israel and Aaron, and the (probably Pharisaic) Psalms of Solomon (17:23, 36; 18:6, 8) reveal a clear Jewish expectation of the coming of a messiah (or messiahs) in the period prior to the emergence of Christianity. See further J. A. Fitzmyer, Concilium 20 (1967) 75–87; ESBNT, 115–121. This evidence indicates how the OT theme of a coming David as an anointed agent of Yahweh developed into an explicit expectation of a Messiah (with a capital M), or of several of them.
“Though Luke’s phrase, ho christos, ‘the Messiah’, is undoubtedly influenced by the early Christian use of the title in reference to Jesus of Nazareth, it would be an oversimplification to maintain that Palestinians of the time of John the Baptist could never have posed the question as framed by Luke. If we are right in thinking that John had at one time been a member of the Qumran community, then the curiosity of ‘all’ the people takes on a still further nuance in Luke’s presentation” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 471–472).
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire: Luke has already told us that John proclaimed a “baptism of metanoia” – see 3:3. That “baptism” is symbolized by the immersion in the Jordan. He now tells us that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. The Greek word baptisma – “baptism” – has an interesting story behind it: “The Gk verb for ‘baptize,’ baptizein, is formed from baptein, ‘dip,’ and means ‘dip frequently or intensively, plunge, immerse.’ By Plato’s time and onwards it is often used in a figurative sense (e.g., in the passive, ‘soaked’ in wine, Plato Symp. 176 B). It appears 4 times in the LXX: 4 Kgdms 5:14 (Naaman in the Jordan), Jdt 12:7 (purification), Sir 34:25—Eng 34:25 (purification after touching a corpse), Isa 21:4 (figuratively of lawlessness). The noun baptisma is only used in Christian literature, where it refers to the baptism of John or to Christian baptism. The word baptismos is used in a wider sense for dipping, washing (of dishes Mark 7:4), of ritual washings (Heb 9:10); John’s baptism, Joseph. Ant. 18.117; Christian baptism, Col 2:12 [variant]. A synonymous noun is loutron ‘bath’ used of both ordinary and ceremonial baths, but in the NT only with reference to baptism. The corresponding verb louein ‘wash, bathe’ is encountered in its everyday use in, e.g., 2 Pet 2:22 and John 13:10. It refers to ceremonial baths in Lev 15:11 and to Christian baptism (probably) in the compound form apolouein in 1 Cor 6:11. (L Hartman, “Baptism” in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 583).
Both Luke and Matthew add “and fire” to Mark’s “Holy Spirit.” In Luke-Acts, of course, the reference is to Pentecost. There both spirit and fire appear (Acts 2:3, 19), in a “baptism in the Spirit” explicitly contrasted to that of John (Acts 1:5; 11:16).
Reflection – “Expectation of what?”
In today’s Gospel – Luke 3:10-18 – a lot is happening! The crowds are pressing on John the Baptist for instructions as to what they must do. They are “filled with expectation”. This is a dangerous situation, especially with the Roman authorities hyper-alert to any signs of the Pax Romana being upset. John deflects attention from himself: “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”.
John announces the Holy Spirit! We are invited to participate in the Spirit’s unpredictable work. It is gift and task. But we are never in control. Blessed are those who endure this constant yielding to the Spirit of God. “There is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #280).
January 25 2022 will be the sixty second anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s announcement that he would convoke a Council. John noted that the seventeen Cardinals present for this announcement greeted the news with ‘impressive, devout silence’ (Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A Komonchak, History of Vatican II, Volume l: Announcing and Preparing Vatican II – Toward a New Era in Catholicism, Or bis/Peeters, 1995, 2). He further noted that although all the Cardinals – those present as well as those absent – were invited to submit a response that would let him know how each felt and the suggestions they might give for carrying through on the plan for a Council, ‘few accepted the invitation and almost all who did, did so in cold and formal language” (Ibid).
Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, later Pope Paul VI, still later, St Paul VI, at the time commented to a close friend, Fr Giulio Bevilacqua: ‘This holy old boy does not seem to realise what a hornet’s nest he is stirring up’ (Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council, revised edition, Fount Paperbacks, 1994, 324). To which Bevilacqua gave a very wise response: ‘Don’t worry Don Battista, lascia fare, let it be, the Holy Spirit is still awake in the Church’ (Ibid).
The modern Western mindset does not dispose us well to waiting, even though life is full of it. Is this perhaps because we have grown used to an illusion that we are in control? That illusion in turn is a creator of unrealistic expectations of self, God, society, Church, spouse, work etc. It can take a serious life crisis to break through this illusion and the unrealistic expectations it engenders. It is possible that some of us will never break through the illusion of control and the unreal expectations, no matter what crises we may be given.
Advent is a time to learn the art of waiting – waiting for and waiting upon. It is informed and enabled by the Spirit of God.