A Voice in the Wilderness

Text: Luke 3-4:30; 1 Kings 17:1-6; 2 Kings 5:1-14; Isaiah 40:3-5; Isaiah 58:6; Isaiah 61:1-2

The underlying assumption in this study of Luke (and eventually Acts and the authentic letters of Paul) is that Luke wrote his gospel and his account of the Acts of the Apostles as a subversive counter to Roman oppression, and the Roman imperial theology that proclaimed Cesar (whether Augustus or Tiberias) as the son of God.  The voice of John the Baptist screamed from the edges of civilization about “repentance” until Herod Antipas had had enough.  Perhaps if John had not gotten personal with his criticism of Herod, he might have survived.  So, too, if Jesus and his followers had not presented a threat to the authority of Rome.  While no one knows the circumstances of Paul’s death – whether by disease in a Roman prison or execution by Roman authority – we can be sure that he too paid for his conviction with his life.

Luke sets up Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist as the one charged with the task of getting the people ready for Jesus’s message.  In his home synagogue, Luke’s Jesus miraculously opens the scroll and claims portions of Isaiah 58 and 61 for himself: “I have come to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”  Mark’s Jesus declares that “the kingdom of God has come,” while Matthew describes Jesus as the fulfillment of the declaration from Isaiah 9:1-2 that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light . . .” Despite the difference in purpose, in all three gospels, in order to hear Jesus’s message, John the Baptist preached that the people must turn back (repent), and return to God’s Covenant of distributive justice-compassion.

Notice that Luke does not have John attack the Pharisees – as Matthew does.  Luke’s John preaches to the “crowds that came out to be baptized by him.”  It is the people – not their leaders – who are the “brood of vipers.”  The “wrath of God” is usually understood to mean punishment for sin, which descends upon the wrongdoer like a thunderbolt from heaven.  But “wrath” really means “consequences,” or actions taken that are justified, given the circumstances.  Under the circumstances of Empire, the people are the ones who are likely to lose their inheritance as children of God if they do not turn back from the sin of collaboration with Empire, and “bear good fruit.”  The solution is radical fairness.  “Whoever has two coats, must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Tax collectors must collect no more than was required, and soldiers were to refrain from extorting money with threats and false accusations.  “No more shakedowns!  No more frame-ups either!” says the Scholar’s translation, and “be satisfied with your pay!”

Already, Luke’s bias is clear.  In 21st Century terms, John the Baptist is talking to the middle and upper classes.  In 21st Century language, Luke urges a “preferential option for the poor,” the strata of 1st Century society with no clothing, no food, who were required to pay taxes or lose their homes, and who were the victims of those soldiers who would extort even more money than their wages already paid them.

Then Luke sends John off stage, as though the stage manager had snatched him into the drapery with a long hook.  “Herod the tetrarch, who had been denounced by John over the matter of Herodias, his brother’s wife (see Mark 6:12-29), topped off all his other crimes by shutting John up in prison.”  He leaves the circumstances of Jesus’s baptism in murky waters.  After John is out of the picture, “as [Jesus]  was praying, the sky opened up and the holy spirit came down . . . and a voice from the sky [proclaimed] “You are my son; today I have become your father.”  Then Luke goes on to list Jesus’s ancestral heritage as proof positive that Jesus – not Cesar – is indeed “the son of God.”

Jesus’s temptation in the desert has been analyzed ad nauseum over the years.  What is worth lifting up is that Jesus definitely turned his back on whatever rewards might be offered by the normal rules governing civilization.  Perhaps his friends and family in Nazareth were unable or unwilling to do the same.  When he claims Isaiah’s words as applying to himself, they all congratulate him on his wonderful sermon, and smile and say (with some degree of smugness, perhaps?), “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  What young minister has not had to deal with similar reactions the first time she preaches in her home church?  Who wants to be reminded that Elijah was sent to save a widow and her son in Zarephath, not to the Israelite King Ahab, who married the pagan Queen Jezebel, worshiper of Baal, and brought famine on the land?  Or who wants to be reminded that Naaman the Syrian – the commander of the enemy army – had more trust in the healing justice of God than the Israelites did?  What reaction would the newly-ordained minister of the gospel get if he implied that the bank president who approved the loan that allowed him to attend seminary was responsible for the foreclosures that are now putting his friends and family on the street?  “Biting the hand that feeds him” comes to mind.

Jesus may well have said at some point that “The truth is, no prophet is welcome on his home turf.”  Indeed, prophets are seldom welcome anywhere, as John the Baptist learned.  In the 21st Century, Barack Obama was forced to disassociate himself from Jeremiah Wright’s all-to-accurate reading of systemic American social injustice.  Otherwise, Obama would likely not have been elected President.  In 21st Century cynical politics, the end justifies the means, or it does not.  We can only speculate how that conundrum was ultimately resolved in Obama’s mind.  Many who count themselves among the liberal base of the Democratic Party today are beginning to imagine that in Obama’s case, the end indeed does not justify the means.  The “public option” for providing affordable health care to all Americans is reportedly dead, and Obama himself put the stake through its heart.

Compromising principle ultimately compromises justice.  But – those 1st Century folks asked –  what are the people to do?  Arianna Huffington proposes that homeowners who are “under water” with their loan-to-value ratios simply walk away from their obligations.  She says that will force banks to revalue those home loans, and begin to return the housing market to some semblance of equitable order.  Perhaps.  But who wants to risk homelessness in the face of the first real winter since before Al Gore took on Global Warming?

For every suggestion of how to return to a Covenant-based relationship with the Cosmos, there is a “yes but.”  Cap and trade coal production?  Yes but the miners will be out of work – not to mention the coal companies will lose profits.  Tax so-called “cadillac” health plans to partially pay for health insurance reform?  Yes but the unions already gave up wage increases in order to get high quality coverage.  You don’t want them voting Republican do you?

What about issues closer to home?  Hire more police, fire, emergency teams?  Yes but the state/county has no money in the budget.  Use stimulus funds for that?  Yes but what happens when it is gone?  Raise Taxes?  So the Democrats can tell us what to do with our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?!

As John the Baptist discovered, humans are fond of apocalypticism.  The current apocalypse is now expected to happen in 2012, which is as far as the Mayans were able (or thought it worthwhile) to project their calendar.  What has not occurred to most of us since the 1st Century is that the apocalypse is not about sinners who refuse to believe in some interventionist god who will save us.  John the Baptist was very clear about that: “Don’t even start with ‘We are the chosen of Abraham.’  I’m telling you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of the rocks.”  Indeed, as Jesus reminded his hometown friends, the legendary history of the Jewish people tells us both Elijah and Elisha were instruments of liberation for the enemies of Israel.

Nor is the apocalypse – judgment day – about petty sin, as we might define petty sin in the 21st Century.  It’s not about politicians claiming to hike the Appalachian Trail while snogging their lovers in Buenos Aires.  It’s not even about making sweet-heart deals for free medicaid in exchange for a vote for health insurance “reform.”  It’s not about arranging an abortion for your 15-year-old daughter who decided you were wrong about birth control.  It’s not about calling in sick and going to the movies.

It’s about living in Non-violent Covenant, distributive justice-compassion, and peace.  In other words, it’s about repenting from violent consumption and embracing sustainable life.  Lester Brown has been an unwelcome prophet for non-violent Covenant since 1974.  But who has been listening?   One might object that economic issues like consumption and sustainability are different from social justice issues like poverty and access to political power.  But economics – the management of the home in the original Greek meaning – is the heart of the matter.  Without food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care, human life is unsustainable.  When humans live from a sense of entitlement and consumption, the balance of the entire planetary support system shifts.

John the Baptist did his best, but he was only one man.  He may have convinced a few folks to throw money at the social problems they found at the edges of town.  But ultimately, when John lost his head, so did his movement.  As John Dominic Crossan puts it, John the Baptist was a sole proprietor, but Jesus started a franchise.  The question for today is, what kind of franchise, and is it still worth signing up for, given the work and the end result?

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