As we wrap up our consideration of our reading for our upcoming second weekend of Advent, this point is forcibly made in Luke’s gospel as well:
“‘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.’” (Luke 3:10-14)
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Many historical Jesus scholars believe that John’s baptism was a form of protest against the temple establishment that had become an extension of oppressive Roman rule. John’s calls for repentance and promise of forgiveness weren’t for personal or individual sins that violated one private piety. In Luke, John rails against economic and social sins, practices that impact a people’s lives together, as a society.
Josephus, who was much more closely located to the characters in these stories than we are, also writes about John, his popularity with people, and the threat the established elites, specifically Herod, came to feel they were:
“John was a good man who had admonished the Jews to practice virtue and to treat each other justly, with due respect to God, and to join in the practice of baptism. John’s view was that correct behavior was a necessary preliminary to baptism, if baptism was to be acceptable to God. Baptism wasn’t not to gain pardon for sins committed but for the purification of the body, which had already been consecrated by righteousness. Herod became alarmed at the crowds that gathered around John, who aroused them to fever pitch with his sermons. Eloquence that had such a powerful effect on people might lead to sedition, since it seemed that the people were prepared to do everything he recommended.” (Josephus, History of the Jews, 18:116-119)
The story of John the Baptist in our reading this week is a story of just change originating from the margins of a society in which both John and Jesus were both figureheads. This is a story that resonates with me today too.
This Advent season, what is God doing right now on the margins? I can’t help but think of movements for change that have formed around concerns for gender justice, racial justice, LGBTQ justice, Indigenous people’s justice, economic justice, and ecological justice. There are so many more areas where justice is needed; these are just the ones that come to my mind first.
Advent announces that something has come: something we have long hoped for is here. Of the many things we hope for, one is a world characterized by distributive justice. A world, here and now, that is a safe, compassionate and just home for everyone, where no one is afraid and, in the words of the Hebrew prophets, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree” (Micah 4:4).
This second week of Advent, we read about a time when that world came to us once before. That world would soon be beheaded with John and crucified with Jesus. But when it came in both John and Jesus’s ministries, it began on the margins. This calls to me to pay attention to what’s happening in our time on the edges, the grassroots, and the wildernesses of our own society. For each time that the world we hope for has arrived throughout history, it has most often started there.
Where is that world showing up again for us today? And who can we come alongside to participate in making that world a reality for us all?
Herb’s new book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is now available at Renewed Heart Ministries.