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This weekend is the third weekend of Advent. Our reading is:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:7-18)
The followers of John the Baptist comprised a movement that preexisted the Jesus moment and co-existed alongside it for a time. They were quite a broad Jewish community (see Mark 1:5; 11:32; and Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18:118-119). Most Jesus scholars today see Jesus’ and John’s movements as separate but related, perhaps with Jesus following John before launching out on his own (see Mark 1:14).
The gospel of John, the canonical gospel written last, goes to great lengths to portray Jesus and his movement as being superior to John’s, however, and there are differences between John’s movement and Jesus’, including differences on fasting and baptisms (see Mark 2:18; John 4:1-2).
This week, in the context of Advent, I’ll focus on the themes that John’s teachings and Jesus’ held in common.
To the crowds, John taught:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
To tax collectors:
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to.”
“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
In each of these instances, John reminds us of his own location: he’s not within the system of the temple-state we covered last week but a voice in the wilderness calling for social justice from outside. He’s standing within the Hebrew Prophetic tradition here. His concern is for justice to be practiced within his society because deeds prove social repentance is more than lip service. John demands that those who are exploiting others stop making them vulnerable.
We’ll explore more in this regard and its implication for us, in Part 2.