Text Study for Luke 3:7-18 (Pt. 1); December 12, 2021

Last week we noted two things about the Lukan account.

First, the Lukan author is writing an orderly account for the long haul, for a setting in which it appears that the Second Coming of the Son of Man will be “delayed” indefinitely. I want to take a moment to reflect on what that means. It doesn’t mean, in the Lukan perspective, that there has been a change in the Divine Timetable. Instead, the Lukan author is suggesting that perhaps the generation of the Markan composition hadn’t gotten the eschatological expectations quite right, especially in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

I worked for a boss once who insisted that we would never suggest that the boss was “late” for anything but rather was “delayed.” The purpose was to indicate that our boss was organized and stuck to a schedule unless some unavoidable task came up unexpectedly. That is not really the case with the Lukan account. The issue of the “delay” was with the schedule assumed by early Jesus followers, not because God was disorganized or needed to go to Plan B.

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Second, the Lukan author is addressing a complicated mix of people in sociological, psychological, and theological terms. The Lukan audience is largely Jewish-Christian, but Gentile god-fearers are becoming more and more numerous in those communities. While the great majority of the Markan audience likely came from the lowest socioeconomic segments of the Roman populace, the Lukan audience seems to have more people of wealth and influence, as well as soldiers and mid-level bureaucrats. We can see that difference reflected in the characters who take center stage in the Lukan drama.

We will come back to that second point in a moment. But first, let’s think about what this difference might mean for how the Lukan account was delivered to readers, or was it listeners? The addressee of Luke/Acts, the “most excellent Theophilus,” was clearly literate. Some scholars wonder if Theophilus was an actual person or simply a stereotype, a literary conceit by the Lukan author. For present purposes, that distinction doesn’t make a difference. Whether Theophilus was real or fictional, the character was assumed to be literate.

That is quite different from the clear Markan assumption that the composition would be primarily spoken and that the written document was really a transcript of one or more of those oral performances. But this doesn’t mean that the literacy rate in the Roman Empire suddenly skyrocketed between 70 and 90 CE. At best, the Lukan author could have assumed about a ten percent literacy rate. It is likely that the real number was somewhat lower.

The great majority of people who came into contact with the Lukan account would have heard it read aloud rather than reading it themselves, either aloud or silently. So, it is worth our time to continue to ask performance critical questions of the texts as we go through this lectionary year. One of those questions entails wondering who was really addressed in a text. More properly, this question invites us to imagine who it was who heard themselves addressed as these texts were read aloud.

In Luke 3:7-22, the text contains clear indications about who was being addressed. In verses seven and ten, it is the “crowds that came out to be baptized by John” who are addressed and then raise questions in response to John’s proclamation. In verses 15, 18, and 21, it is “the people” (and then “all the people”) who are the target of the text. As I noted last week, this is different Matthew’s targeting of the religious authorities. This is a direct address similar to the “you (plural)” passages in the Markan composition.

That direct address takes up most of verses seven through nine. It continues in verses ten through fourteen and is focused on specific social groups. In verses fifteen through seventeen, John responds to questions which may still have reverberated in the Lukan community fifty years after the fact. And in verse twenty-one, we hear that “all the people” have been baptized, a remarkable statement on its own. John’s work was finished, and Jesus’ ministry could then begin.

As we look more closely at the text, and as we remember that oral/aural techniques still apply, we can begin to look for (and to see) some of those techniques and use them in our interpretation. You may recall the Markan fondness for chiastic structures. And you may recall that this is a characteristic of oral/aural presentations in the Greco-Roman world. In Luke 3:7-10, I would suggest that we have a small chiasm. It works like this:

A:        Luke 3:7 – John warns the crowds

B:        Luke 3:8a – Be fruitful trees

C:        Luke 3:8b – Children of Abraham from stones

B’:       Luke 3:9 – Unfruitful trees are cut down

A’:       Luke 3:10 – The crowds ask their question

The center of this paragraph is John’s reminder to the crowds that their cultural and religious pedigree is neither necessary nor sufficient to “flee the wrath to come.” Stones don’t have such a pedigree. Neither do Gentiles, by the way. Remember that the Lukan author always has an eye toward how this will all work out in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes of Acts is that new “children of Abraham” will be raised up in the most unexpected of places.

On the one hand, this is a caution to Jewish Christians who are perhaps tempted to lean back on their pedigrees and relax a bit as the Second Coming seems to recede into the historical future. On the other hand, it is good news for those who do not have and cannot have that pedigree. They may become living stones just as Jesus is the living cornerstone upon which the Church is now built. Regardless of their backgrounds, the listeners can indeed “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

We contemporary Jesus followers are long past the Jew/Gentile divide of the first century. We are not, however, long past the boundaries we create between “insiders” and “outsiders” in most of our congregations. Pedigree, whether in terms of genealogy or tenure, does not substitute for repentance – changing one’s mind to be aligned with God’s intentions. Nor does recent arrival require one to sit on the sidelines until one has “earned the right” to be part of the real community.

The Lukan author moves from a chiastic paragraph to one that exhibits the Rule of Three. Did you happen to notice that? The crowd replies to John and says, “What, therefore, shall we do?” Rather than offering a broad-brush description, the Lukan author has John respond to three specific situations: less-poor people, tax-collectors, and soldiers. I want to make a few observations here.

First, John accepts the question as the right one. But his reply might not be quite what the first audience or the Lukan audience was expecting. I would connect Luke 3:10 to the previous paragraph in part because it is connected with an “and.” Luke 3:11 has a “but” in it to indicate a mild adversative sense. While we might expect John to urge some “spiritual” reformation, he goes for the pocketbook, at least metaphorically.

Second, John affirms that the crowds can indeed do something. They have, in contemporary language, agency. That agency is not determined by economic status. It is not only people of means who can do something that matters. Someone with two coats was not a wealthy person. But that someone was also not the poorest of the poor. Do something with what you have. Tax-collectors could obey the rules, and soldiers could be satisfied with their wages.

These are actions from normal, everyday life. On the one hand, the Lukan author is not advocating for a social or economic revolution on some historic scale. On the other hand, a modest social position is no excuse for doing nothing. We can all do something, the Lukan author seems to say. And that something will likely be specific to the dynamics of our particular situations.

I cannot do “everything.” So, I am sometimes tempted to do nothing. But the fact that I will not bring about change on some historic scale is not a reason to despair. I don’t think that my commitment to a plant-based, whole foods diet will solve the climate crisis or reform industrial agriculture. But it is something. I don’t think my charitable gifts to a variety of organizations will eliminate hunger or childhood poverty. But those gifts make some small difference. In the language of the theater, there are no small parts – only small players.

In addition, doing something changes me. Remember, this is about bearing fruit worthy of repentance. The Western, Enlightenment assumption is that we think ourselves into acting. But the truth is that we more often act ourselves into thinking. When I share my cloak with the one who has none, I nudge myself to be more of the person who does such things. Habits form character and change minds. That sounds like repentance to me.

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