What I’m Thinking: Harsh Directions

John the Baptist has quite a reputation for over-the-top preaching, and “You brood of vipers” certainly qualifies. But… was he really so strict?

Here’s a transcript:

I’m thinking about the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 3:7-18), the preaching of John the Baptist. In last week’s reading from the first verses of chapter, three, Luke gave us the setting and he also gave us what I might think of as John’s “sermon text,” those words from Isaiah about preparing a highway in the wilderness for God.

In this section we hear, well, the sermon. What did John have to say based on that text from Isaiah? And I have to say, it didn’t start all that promisingly. John called his listeners a brood of vipers, and in my experience as a preacher, that usually doesn’t go all that well. OK, I’ve never actually as a preacher called my listeners a brood of vipers, because I don’t think it will go over all that well.

As a result, we tend to think of John as one of the harshest and most directive of prophets, but if we then look at what people asked him, and what he told them, it starts to take on a bit of nuance. Because the common people came and they asked John, “What should we do?” and John told them if you have an extra coat and if you have food to spare, then share it with the people who have none. Basically, what you don’t need, give to people who do. That’s not all that harsh a direction.

Then there is the question from the tax collectors, “What should we do?” And John said, collect only what is owed and do not insist upon more. Which is basically what tax collectors are supposed to do. And then finally soldiers asked John, “What should we do?” and he said, don’t extort money from people with threats or violence.

This is just a base of behavior. Don’t use force on people who can’t resist you. Share the things that you don’t need with the people who do. You might recall that a couple of years later a wealthy man would ask Jesus what he should do and Jesus would say, “Give away everything you have.” It starts to make John sound a lot better.

What would John say to us? I’m quite sure that he would look upon the things that decorate our homes. He would shake his head. He might well call us a brood of vipers, but he would certainly have something to say about sharing with those who do not have what we do.

I’m not sure what the contemporary equivalent of tax collectors is, but I’m pretty sure that he would look at some of the inflated prices that go into building up the wealth of the wealthy and relieving the poor of their resources, and he would say, “You know, that’s an awful lot like what the tax collectors did in my day.” And I know that he would look at the ways in which threats and intimidation are used in our contemporary society, all the way from the homes that are scenes of domestic abuse to the warnings of nations against one another, and he would say to us all, “Stop it now.”

“Just stop it now.”

Well, if we are to prepare a highway for our God through the wilderness of human life, we could do worse than to listen to John.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to hear what you’re thinking. Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below; I’d love to hear from you.

Categories What I'm Thinking | Tags: , | Posted on December 6, 2021

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