Luke 3 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
3 In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius’ rule; when Pontius Pilate was governor of Y’hudah, Herod ruler of the Galil, his brother Philip ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 with ‘Anan and Kayafa being the high priests; the word of God came to Yochanan Ben-Z’kharyah in the desert. 3 He went all through the Yarden region announcing an immersion in which people turned to God to be released from sin. 4 It was just as had been written in the book of the sayings of the prophet Yesha‘yahu,
“The voice of someone crying out:
‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord!
Make straight paths for him!
5 Every valley must be filled in,
every mountain and hill leveled off;
the winding roads must be straightened
and the rough ways made smooth.
6 Then all humanity will see God’s deliverance.’”
7 Therefore, Yochanan said to the crowds who came out to be immersed by him, “You snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming punishment? 8 If you have really turned from your sins, produce fruit that will prove it! And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘Avraham is our father’! For I tell you that God can raise up for Avraham sons from these stones! 9 Already the axe is at the root of the trees, ready to strike; every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown in the fire!”
10 The crowds asked Yochanan, “So then, what should we do?” 11 He answered, “Whoever has two coats should share with somebody who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.” 12 Tax-collectors also came to be immersed; and they asked him, “Rabbi, what should we do?” 13 “Collect no more than the government assesses,” he told them. 14 Some soldiers asked him, “What about us? What should we do?” To them he said, “Don’t intimidate anyone, don’t accuse people falsely, and be satisfied with your pay.”
15 The people were in a state of great expectancy, and everyone was wondering whether perhaps Yochanan himself might be the Messiah; 16 so Yochanan answered them all, “I am immersing you in water, but he who is coming is more powerful than me — I’m not worthy to untie his sandals! He will immerse you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. 17 He has with him his winnowing fork to clear out his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the straw with unquenchable fire!”
18 And with many other warnings besides these he announced the Good News to the people.
19 But Yochanan also denounced Herod the regional governor for taking as his own wife Herodias, the wife of his brother, and for all the other wicked things Herod had done; 20 whereupon Herod added this to the rest: he locked up Yochanan in prison.
Luke’s first sentence is so good that I’ve deliberately held back this passage until this first day of 2016 because it so wonderfully links the time of the world with the action of God. He is concerned to locate his story in the ordinary time of the world, so he gives the reader the names of the world’s great ones by whose lives the world’s time is marked: Tiberias Caesar above all and his Judaean governor Pilatus, but also the puppet rulers of the so-called tetrarchies in the area, along with the religious establishment in Jerusalem, all of these are mentioned in participial and adverbial phrases, as mere preliminaries to the main act, which is the word of God that came to Jochanan son of Z’charyah in the desert. The names take in the huge geographical sweep of Roman and local power, but the important thing is happening on the fringes of civilisation, in the Judaean desert, in the place of testing, where Israel had wandered before the conquest of the land, and had crossed on the way back to their land after exile.
Anyone who thinks Luke’s emphasis is naïve should think of how, in our time, a group in the Iraqi desert, believing that Allah has chosen it to establish a kalifate, has disrupted the great powers of the world by its ferocity and conviction. Often it has been movements from beyond the perspective of settled power that have changed the world. Luke already knew that by the time he was writing, the movement that began out of sight in the desert had spread as far as the capital of the empire. The comparison with Daesh may seem crass to my readers, because of course, the Jesus movement was utterly non -violent. That is true, but perhaps we have quietly edited out the fierce courage and radical conviction of the Jesus movement to make it more palatable to our comfortable lives.
Certainly Luke will not help us to do that. Immediately he uses a great prophecy from Isaiah, originally referring to the freeing of the Jewish slaves from Babylon and their march, with God, back to Judaea, but now made to apply to the ministry of Yochanan the immerser, to whom Luke has introduced his readers in his first chapter, and who now fulfils the role of the herald of the great king. The great powers mentioned in the first sentence become mere spectators of the preparations for the true king’s arrival.
The societal /spiritual landscape must be made ready for the true king. The arrogant heights must be brought down, the humiliated depths must be raised, the twisted must be straightened, so that God’s deliverance of the people from sin, injustice and slavery may take place. Already the reader will suspect that the movement thus announced will not be for the comfy or the faint-hearted.
That suspicion is immediately confirmed by Luke’s presentation of the Immerser’s preaching: anyone who begins by affectionately addressing his audience as “Vipers’ gets” (so translated by Lorimer, New Testament in Scots, and more accurate than the CJB), is not currying favour with the comfortable. He is not looking for emotional conversions or even miserable penances, but actions that demonstrate a new beginning in goodness and justice. His hearers’ pride in being Jewish is rubbished -God can make himself Jews anytime- and they are warned that even the tree planted by God (an ancient image of Israel) can be cut down if it fails to produce the fruit that God expects. The image of the axe ready to strike should leave nobody in doubt that God means business.
Luke then moves on to show that this ferocious prophet has his feet on the ground. He admonishes his hearers to do the small acts of justice which they will find hardest, because they are the very things they have avoided doing. No amount of ritual immersion will do them any good if they don’t get on with everyday justice and compassion.
As for the great one who is to arrive, nobody should see Him as a pushover. He will be greater than John and more awe-inspiring, immersing people in the fire of God’s spirit, gathering a harvest of decent folk and immolating the rest! (This is Glasgow gangster talk: “Yous may think Ah’m pretty tasty, but see the Bigman? He’s f…in’ apocalypse now. Ah widnae like tae see whit he’d dae tae yous, if yi dinny get yer arse in line!”/ “You may think I’m a trifle dangerous, but our leader is even more so. He can be genuinely frightening. I would not wish to be present when he deals with you if you fail to obey him.”)
After all this, the reader is astounded by Luke’s summary of events:
“And with many other warnings besides these he announced the Good News to the people”
This is the Good News?!
Certainly the word “euangelion” (Good News) is never used lightly by Luke, so we must conclude that, as his introductory chapters have led us to expect, Yochanan is part of God’s new time, and a bearer of the Gospel.
Through this faithful human being, God’s new time is inserted into the time of worldly powers, and will change them. May the same be true of this year 2016, through all faithful people of all religions and none, who hear the quiet and irresistible voice that demands justice now.