Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part One)

Baptism of Our Lord C – January 9, 2022

A Two-Handed Gospel

“Give me a one-handed economist,” demanded President Harry Truman. “All my economists,” he complained, “say ‘on the one hand…,’ then ‘but on the other…’” Understandably, Give ‘Em Hell Harry wanted simple and actionable information. If only economics at the macro level could produce simple and actionable information. Of course, it would be nice if anything important in life delivered some “one-handed” information.

In the gospel text for the Baptism of our Lord, Year C, the Lukan author uses a favorite construction. It is the “men-de” construction which often produces the translation best rendered by “on the one hand…on the other hand.” We see this, for example, in the way John contrasts himself with the one who will come after him.

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“John replied to them all and said, ‘I on the one hand am baptizing you with water; on the other hand, the one who is coming is my Stronger One, of whom I am not worthy to loose the strap of his sandals; he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire…’” (Luke 3:16, my translation). The construction provides a contrast between the two “hands” without creating an opposition between them.

The same construction is used in verses eighteen through twenty.  “Therefore, on the one hand, with many and various exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people; (19) but on the other hand, Herod the Tetrarch, who was being condemned by him [John] concerning Herodias the wife of his [Herod’s] brother and concerning all of the evil things Herod did, (20) piled also upon all this [and] shut up John in prison” (my translation).

This is grammatical and literary justification for including verses eighteen through twenty in the liturgical reading for this Sunday. The Lukan author summarizes John’s preaching as “Good News” for the people (read, “ordinary people”) but as bad news for Herod the Tetrarch. This historical context, a two-handed description, is the setting for Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his work.

In addition, verse eighteen has a “therefore” or a “then” in the sentence. This means, of course, that the Lukan author understands verses eighteen through twenty as the implication or consequence or meaning of the preceding material. John’s preaching was clearly more than a call to personal repentance. It included the critique of the powerful that put an end to John’s public ministry.

Herod “shut up” John’s critique by shutting him up in prison. On the one hand, Jesus could have taken the hint and faded into the background, dying of old age. On the other hand, he could fill the role described by John and launch into his work. Of course, Jesus chose the latter. He did so under the shadow of the cross, a shadow cast by John’s imprisonment and execution.

I am reminded that the Word of God is always “two-handed,” always capable of doing two things at the same time. In my Lutheran theological tradition, this is the “Law-Gospel dialectic.” The Word always pronounces Law and proclaims Gospel at the same time. It is true that the Lukan author draws a contrast between the “wheat” of the people who come to be baptized by John and the “chaff” of Herod and company. Sometimes the contrasts are that obvious – but not very often.

On the one hand, there is much in me that needs to be purified and removed with the wind and fire of the Spirit. That can be a painful and humbling process and is a daily reality for me and for all Jesus followers. On the other, the Good News of God’s love for all of us in Jesus the Messiah is always being announced, and I am given the ears to hear that gospel. Both things can happen at the same time and even through the same text.

If I am listening from a place of power, privilege, position, and property, I will likely hear the Word as a threat to my place, and I may reject what I hear. If I am listening from a place of oppression and subjugation, I will likely hear the Word as an announcement of liberation of Good News for the poor, and I will gladly embrace what I hear. We get some of that dynamic in Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4.

Jesus comes to bring a “two-handed” gospel – that gathers together the wheat and burns away the chaff. Our temptation is to demand a “one-handed” gospel that omits the cleansing of judgment.

Holy Spirit, empower me to allow both hands of the Word to work in my life today.

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