As I’ve noted in previous posts, I think it will be most helpful to read through verse nine of Luke 3 this Sunday. Take a look at the first sentence in Luke 3:7 in particular. “Therefore [John] said to the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him, ‘Offspring of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’” It’s worth comparing this to the other Synoptic accounts and then reflecting on the differences.
The Markan composition doesn’t portray John the Baptizer as yelling at anyone about being the illegitimate children of serpents. The writer of Matthew, on the other hand, really likes this description. That writer likes it so much that it shows up three times in the Matthean account, in Matthew 3, 12, and 23. Matthew applies the tag first to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then to the Pharisees by themselves, and then to the scribes and Pharisees.
Luke has John yelling in general at the crowds who were coming out to be baptized by him. There may well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in those crowds – as well as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. It’s clear that Matthew and Luke share this label from a source upon which they both relied. But why does the Lukan author make the particular editorial choice to spray this insult with a firehose rather than to apply it with a squirt bottle?
I think the Lukan author is addressing a mixed crowd, even though the author appears only to be addressing a member of some elite group, the “most excellent Theophilus.” The Lukan author is not merely worried that the Markan composition is somehow incomplete, although that is a concern for the Lukan author.
I think much more is going on. A generation after the Jewish War and two decades after some thought the End of the Age would arrive, Jesus followers appear to have become complacent. On the one hand, the Lukan author is encouraging Jesus followers to settle in for the long haul and to see the Kin(g)dom of God already in their midst. On the other hand, the Lukan author is challenging the Jesus followers not to settle for the values and practices of the larger culture.
As I read the Lukan account, it strikes me that the author has at least three groups in mind here. Next Sunday, we will hear from the “little people” who come out to John. We’ll look at this in more detail in upcoming posts, but we can make some transition here. The Lukan author does not ask those people to give up their “jobs” to resist the values of Empire. Instead, the author reports that John calls them to do their jobs with integrity rather than in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement.
In particular, the Lukan author singles out those who would experience the greater pressure to conform – tax contractors and mercenary soldiers. I think these two classes were made up primarily of Jews at the time of John, and that fact continued to hold in the time of the Lukan account. The author will spend more time with such folks in the coming chapters, but we get a preview here of how Jesus followers engaged in “The System” are to behave.
John also addresses the poor and indigent in the crowd. Who could blame them for trying to come out on top in the day-to-day struggle for survival? But John commands the standard of “enough” even for those whose daily bread is a daily question. In John’s time, this group would have made up an increasing percentage of the population, as the Romans squeezed the Syrian province for more and more funds to underwrite adventures elsewhere in the borders of the Empire. The Lukan audience would not have experienced much change in that dynamic in the two generations after the Resurrection.
The third group, the one that seems to get the most attention in the Lukan account, is those who can presume upon their pedigree and privilege. “Produce fruit that is worthy of repentance,” John commands them, “and don’t begin to say in yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as father…’” That reliance on the holy genealogy will get them precisely nothing. That status is worth as much as the stones along the road. If God wants to turn those stones into children of Abraham, God can do it with a word.
The Lukan account will criticize repeatedly those who presume upon their power, position, privilege, and property. I think of the parable of the Rich Fool. The real punch of that parable is the smug self-satisfaction of the rich man. “Self,” he says to himself, “you have plenty laid up for years to come; take it easy, eat, drink, and be merry!” Of course, it didn’t work out all that well for the Rich Fool. The conclusion of this line of thought is clear – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
It’s clear from the introduction to the Lukan account, that the primary audience for Luke-Acts is this population of the relatively privileged. They have survived the debacle of the Jewish War. Jesus has not returned to make their riches irrelevant. Now they must learn how to follow the Jesus way rather than the Roman way, despite the fact that they are attached to that larger cultural system through their status, wealth, and privilege.
While the Book of Acts moves the narrative into the larger Gentile world, it begins with a concentrated focus on how those with wealth can be part of the community of Jesus followers. In Acts 4, we get the description of the common life of the early Jesus community. They held in common their trust in Jesus as if they had one heart, one soul, and all their physical possessions in common. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35, NRSV).
The Lukan author then tells the story of the Cypriot Levite, Joseph Barnabas. He converted his property to cash and placed the offering at the feet of the apostles. In contrast, chapter five begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They, too, converted some of their property to cash and delivered a portion of the proceeds to the apostles.
The problem, apparently, was that they wanted the community to think they were more generous than they were. They held back a portion for security and thus lied to the Holy Spirit and the community. The result of this deception was the consecutive deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.
It should be clear to us as readers that the Lukan author is addressing a number of relatively wealthy members of the Jesus community. There’s no reason to discuss the proceeds of real estate transactions with people whose property inventory consists of a second cloak. One of the questions facing the Lukan community as they settle in after a generation of relative chaos is not whether the privileged can be part of the community but rather what to do with that privilege as part of the community.
References and Resources
Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).
Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.
Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rumors_of_Resistance/QwQDAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR3&printsec=frontcover.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.