Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (16 December 2018)

Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (16 December 2018)

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)

Introductory notes


In this particular section of Luke’s Gospel – 3:1-18 – we find similarities with both Mark – see 1:1-8 – and Matthew – see 3:1-12.

Luke is dependent on Mark but he also “freely omits and adds material” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 66). A significant omission by Luke, for example, is Mark’s 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). On the other hand, a significant addition by Luke, for example, is John’s message on repentance (metanoia) (3:7-9) and the saying on the winnowing fan (3:17).

“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).

Luke 3:10-14 is unique to Luke.


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 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).


Luke has already told us that John the Baptist proclaimed a “baptism of metanoia” – see 3:3. In today’s Gospel – Luke 3:10-18 – through the words of John the Baptist, he tells us that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. The Greek word, translated as “baptism”, is baptisma. Straightforward enough, you might say. Actually, there is a very interesting and revealing story behind that word. The Greek verb baptein, means ‘dip frequently or intensively, plunge, immerse’ (L Hartman, “Baptism” in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 583).

As indicated in the foregoing notes by Hartman, a form of the same verb is used by Plato (428-347BC) in his Symposium. A group – including Socrates (470-399BC) – is gathering for a dialogue. According to Apollodorus who is telling the story – soon after Socrates arrives, the guests agree to refrain from the sort of hard drinking that had consumed them the previous night. Aristophanes says, “we should, by all means, avoid hard drinking, for I was myself one of those who were yesterday drowned in drink” (“Symposium”, 176B, in The Dialogues of Plato, translated by B. Jowett, New York; London: Macmillan and Co, 1892, 546). The word “drowned’ translates the Greek word bebaptismēnon – from the root word, baptein. As Hartman indicates, another possible translation is “soaked”.

At the beginning of Acts, Luke recalls the earlier references to baptism in his Gospel: “‘This’, (the Risen Lord) said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (1:4-5). When – as Luke continues the report in Acts – the Holy Spirit comes down on the gathered disciples, one of the bystanders says: “They are filled with new wine” (2:13). Aristophanes might have said: “They are drowned/soaked in wine”!

All of which gives us an imaginative and powerful way to think of baptism. When one has engaged in “hard drinking” and has become “drowned” in alcohol, the key issue is that the alcohol has taken charge. Other words that might be used to translate the Greek verb baptein in any of its various forms – words such as ‘dip frequently or intensively, plunge, immerse’ – also carry something of the same idea. There is a yielding and a handing over, a being ‘taken hold of’ as St Paul describes his experience of the coming of the Spirit of the Risen Lord in his own life – see Philippians 3:12. St Paul uses a very strong word here: katalambanō.

Baptism is a strong word! No single English word conveys anything like its full meaning. Baptism is being taken hold of, being immersed, being plunged into, being soaked, being drowned . . . in the Spirit of Christ! It implies surrender, yielding control, a new birth, a new creation. “No longer I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).

So you have received the sacrament of baptism. But have you lived into it – or rather have you let baptism live into you?