First, Do No Harm, but Then…
In Luke 3:18, John’s proclamation is described as “good news.” On the face of it, that seems like a somewhat odd characterization. We don’t tend to hear words about the coming wrath or unquenchable fire as positive predictions. Perhaps we need to listen with ears better tuned to the message.
Levine and Witherington suggest that “the more informed among Luke’s readers would have recognized the Baptizer’s allusion to Isa. 51:1-2” (page 87). If that is the case, then we have the chance to do some “little text, big context” work to better appreciate what the Lukan audience may have been taught to hear. The verses in question say,
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Isaiah 51:1-2, NRSV).
If you are going to look to “Abraham your father,” John may be saying, then this is the place to look. Isaiah 51:3 offers words of comfort to those who are returning from the Babylonian Exile. That comfort will come in the waste places, and the wilderness will become like the Garden of Eden. Here’s a connection to John’s place of residence (as Luke describes it) in the wilderness. This will be a place of joy and gladness, of thanksgiving and the voice of song.
John’s proclamation in verse six ends with the declaration that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. “Salvation” comes into the poem in Second Isaiah three times in five verses. God’s salvation has gone out in the new regime of God’s rule over all the peoples. Heaven and earth will vanish like smoke, but God’s salvation will be forever, and God’s deliverance will be unending. Those who revile and reproach God’s people will be eaten up like old fabric, but God’s deliverance will be forever and God’s salvation to all generations.
The poem in Isaiah 51 carries the Good News of God’s faithful deliverance. That deliverance will set people free from domination and oppression. That deliverance and salvation shall have universal scope and shall be available for all peoples. This universal deliverance and salvation shall be about justice and redemption. The first result of this salvation shall be the return of the “ransomed of the Lord” with songs on their lips and joy on their heads.
If this text is part of what stands in the background of John’s proclamation, then it is more plausible that it would be heard as “good news.” If that is the case, then the question, “What, therefore, shall we do?” is not a fearful response. It is rather something more like, “What can we do to help?” If things are getting better, then count us in! For the first time in a long time, there is reason to hope.
The popular notion is that the essence of the Hippocratic Oath taken by (some) doctors is the phrase, “First, do harm.” It is often noted in its Latin form, “primum non nocere.” In fact, this language doesn’t show up in the Hippocratic oath. When it does show up in the writing of the ancient Greek physician, in a work entitled On Epidemics, it is more ambiguous than perhaps we would like. Physicians and their instructors debate the practical meaning of the phrase and know that in the real world applying it is always complicated and sometimes counterproductive.
“First, do no harm” seems to be more John the Baptist than Hippocrates. Tax collectors, don’t gouge the public. Soldiers, don’t extort more than you have coming to you. However, this is perhaps about more than refraining from criminal behavior. Richard Swanson helps us to see this urging in a wider and deeper context.
“Even people who made their living collaborating with the enemy,” Swanson writes, “heard the call to turn the world right-side-up” (page 67). He suggests that John tells them to do just what the rules require and not one thing more. “John tells even the collaborators that they can join the resistance against Rome,” Swanson continues. John “tells them simply to do the bare minimum, to do what native peoples have always done to resist powerful colonizers: never to make it easy for the oppressors, follow their orders, but no more than that” (page 67). John offers the soldiers similar counsel.
It is certainly the case, as I noted in the previous post, that John urges his listeners to do what is possible within the scope of their daily lives. But that doing may be more than trying to straddle the fence between collaborator and revolutionary. If the Lukan account is a hidden transcript of resistance, then these small actions are part of that hidden transcript. Done enough times, such actions can cause a large system to simply grind to a halt.
Scheffler notes the slight change in Luke 3:17 as compared to Matthew 3:12 (page 24). In the Lukan recension, the clearing of the threshing floor and the gathering of the wheat are aorist infinitives rather than future tenses. These things are happening in the ministry of Jesus, according to Luke. Only the final judgment is put off to the future. Salvation is happening in the here and now. That is part of the good news the people are hearing.
This can help to make some sense of the final paragraph in this section. Immediately following this declaration that John’s proclamation was “good news,” we hear the Lukan report of John’s arrest and imprisonment.
I think the Lukan author has provided an inclusio at this point in the text. That’s another of those oral/aural techniques for which we need to keep our eyes and ears open. Herod is noted in verse one as the ruler of Galilee. He is described again in verse nineteen as “the ruler.” In both cases, the formal title of “tetrarch” is used in the Greek text. The “good news” leads, in literary terms, to an immediate and negative response from one of the so-called rulers.
Scheffler points to this connection in his article. “Luke pictures the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus, not only as far as the latter’s socio-ethic is concerned, but also with regard to his suffering. As was the case with Jesus,” Scheffler continues, “the notion that a consistent socio-ethic leads to suffering also applies to John. Therefore,” he concludes, “it is important that John’s sufferings are mentioned here where he explicitly reports about the relationship between John and Jesus” (page 25).
I think the context supports the notion that the socio-ethical actions John advises are more than “good deeds.” Instead, they are actions of resistance against oppressors. They are part of the larger reality of the Kin(g)dom of God that challenges the domination systems which embody the oppression of Evil in the world. John urges people caught up in the System to find ways to resist the System and to make it grind to a halt. John takes on the corruption of the rulers directly and pays for that confrontation with his life.
The Lukan author is a master of the oral and/or literary technique of foreshadowing. The shadow of the cross falls over this part of the narrative as John is hauled off to prison for eventual execution. On the one hand, John proclaims the Good News that will be fulfilled in Jesus. On the other hand, he is apprehended by the forces of Evil who seek to suppress that good news.
“John’s message is, given his audience, one of comfort,” Levine and Witherington write, “people who have brought themselves to John and repented are the wheat; those who deny John and his baptism are the chaff…” They suggest that we have a clear indication of such chaff in verses 19-20. Herod Antipas and Herodias represent the chaff that will be destroyed.
I think that the Lukan account picks up a new section at verse 21, although the connection to “all the people” keeps a bridge to the previous section. Luke 3:21 through 4:30 is tied together by a reflection on the nature of Jesus as the Son of God. Therefore, as I suggested reading Luke 3:1-9 for last week, this week I would read Luke 3:7-20. I don’t think we honor the Lukan text by stopping at verse 18.
In the previous post, I encouraged us to wonder (at least by implication) how we can prepare the way of the Lord through our everyday lives and small actions. I want to stick with that wondering. But I think the text in its fullness urges to think not only about where we might engage in such actions, but where those actions might be tools of resistance to the powers that seek to dominate. And if those actions are such tools of resistance, then perhaps we should be ready to suffer as a result of our engagement with the powers.
It takes very little effort, for example, to speak up in support of someone who has endured a racial slur in our presence. Yet, we White people find it incredibly difficult to respond to such language with resistance to the wrong and support for the sufferer. We know that if we do, we may experience some suffering on our own. At the very least we will surrender some of our White solidarity, and we hate to relinquish that property.
Yet, that is precisely the sort of action I suspect John would call forth from us as the fruit that befits repentance.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.