Portable Commentary

Advent 3C / 12 December 2021

Thought for the day  
“What then should we do?” is both obvious and pertinent. In the maelstrom of life, it is good to stand back and discern what is being asked of me in the many contexts of life: family member, spouse, parent, disciple, leader, pastor, evangeliser and so forth. In these different roles, how should I be, what should I do so as to enable others too to fulfil their own callings, as family member, spouse etc. As in the teaching of John the Baptism, our responses are authentic only if they are practical, down-to-earth and real.

Help me, Lord, to recognise in the everyday what you desire of me. Help me to see what are the practical steps I can take from today onwards so as to be a better disciple of your son, Jesus, the coming one, whom John proclaims today to all who would listen. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Luke 3:10   And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Luke 3:15   As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Luke 3:18   So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Initial observations
Luke gives a more extended summary of the preaching of the Baptist, a measure of his continued significance (see New Testament foreground below). Cf. Luke 3:1-9.

In Luke, the birth narratives of John and Jesus are designed to “sort” the relationship between the two. However, continued anxiety is apparent in Luke’s extraordinary editorial move in removing the Baptist from the scene of the baptism: But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:19–22)

Kind of writing
It is a summary statement of John’s preaching, confirmed in Josephus’ account. The clear distinction between John and Jesus was needed both at the time of writing and later.

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Old Testament background
What should we do?
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord. (Zechariah 8:16–17)

Baptism of Fire
On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. (Isaiah 4:2–5)
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Malachi 4:1)

Harvest symbolism

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Psalms 1:3–4)
I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork in the gates of the land; I have bereaved them, I have destroyed my people; they did not turn from their ways. (Jeremiah 15:7)

Expectations (extra-biblical)
And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. (PsSol 17:32)

May God cleanse Israel for the day of mercy in blessing, for the appointed day when his Messiah will reign. (which will be) under the rod of discipline of the Lord Messiah, in the fear of his God, in wisdom of spirit, and of righteousness and of strength.” (PsSol 18:5, 7)

Good news - an expression from Second and Third Isaiah
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9; cf Is 52:7)

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Isaiah 61:1–2)

New Testament foreground
He answered them, “I will also ask you a question, and you tell me: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” (Luke 20:3–6)

He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25)

Then he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:3–4)

St Paul
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8–10)

Brief commentary
Verse 10 These questions are in Luke only and the message is addressed to the crowds, that is, the people as such, and not just to their leaders. A life of practical conversion of heart, leading to real service of the neighbour is what John has in mind.
Verse 11 Looking out for the poor is part of Old Testament piety: Is 1:10-20; 58:6-7 and many other texts. At Luke’s stage in the evolution of Christianity, disciples looked forward urgently to a reversal of oppressive social conditions.
Verse 12 As is well known, tax collectors were mostly likely fellow Jews who worked for the Empire and were regarded as traitors and were well known for corrupt practices.
Verse 13 This verse acknowledges the corrupt practices of the tax/toll collectors.
Verse 14 Soldiers, too, could have included Jews, in the service of Herod Antipas. This teaching of John is confirmed in the writings of Josephus.
Verse 15 Some clearly did regard John as the Messiah. He himself seems to have been clear that he was not. However, what he did expect is not so clear: God himself perhaps, or an angel, or the Messiah, or a Moses-type prophet.
Verse 16 John distinguishes himself from the Messiah in three ways. (i) The messiah will be someone “more powerful.” (ii) John uses as a metaphor the humblest task of the lowest servant. (iii) There will be a different kind of baptism. It may well be that originally the image was simpler: wind (pneuma, also spirit) and fire, that is, elements associated with harvest (see the next verse). The Christian reception of the image, however, reads pneuma to mean Spirit, to which the label “holy” is given so that it now refers to the Holy Spirit in baptism. In turn, then, the Holy Spirit has a large presence and role in Luke-Acts (Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25–26; 3:16, 22; 4:1; 10:21; 11:13; 12:10, 12; Acts 1:2, 5, 8, 16; 2:4, 33, 38; 4:8, 25, 31; 5:3, 32; 6:5; 7:51, and so forth).
Verse 17 This is the traditional image of harvest for the end of time. When harvest does come around, it is time to examine the quality of the crop and so it easily becomes a metaphor of judgement, for instance in Psalm 1 above. The image comes from farming practice: the whole mixture was thrown into the air and the wind blew the chaff aside, while the grain landed. The chaff was then burned. Of course, the fire at a harvest was not unquenchable. This points us in the direction of final judgement.
Cf. And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Isaiah 66:24)

Pointers for prayer
1. “What should we do?” The common thread in John’s answers was to encourage his questioners to be other-centred rather than self-centred, each in the context of their own circumstances. In your experience what difference has it made for you when you changed your attitude in this way?
2. John told the people in a direct and honest way what they should do. Perhaps you have had friends who did not beat about the bush but have told you honestly what they thought about your behaviour when you asked them? In gratitude recall such friends.
3. The humility of John comes out in this passage, happy to acknowledge that he only had a minor role to play in relation to the Messiah. At the same time he was enthused by his mission to “proclaim the good news to the people.” What difference has it made for you when you were able to see the good in yourself, and use your gifts without having to score by portraying yourself as greater than someone else?

Almighty God, you sent your Son into a world where the wheat must be winnowed from the chaff and evil clings even to what is good. Let the fire of your Spirit purge us of greed and deceit, so that, purified, we may find our peace in you and you may delight in us.
Grant this through him whose coming is certain, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.