They asked John what to do, and you’ll be surprised what he said…


{I apologize for the title, but I see that format so often on Facebook feeds, I couldn’t resist.}

In Luke 3, John the Baptist is preaching a hard message.  Listening to John must have been like climbing into the ring for a couple of rounds of sparring, when only John was punching.  His message was “Turn”.  That is what repent means. Turn away from injustice. Turn back from hypocrisy. Turn to God.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

When three categories of people appear, it is interesting what the grizzled prophet tells them to do.

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we,what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

To regular folk, those who work to make a living, he said that if they have any extra, they should share.  In the news was a story of a neighborhood’s reaction to the placement of a small housing initiative.  One said, “anything we can do to help is great.” The other neighbor said, “what will this do to my property value?”  John here does not mention any qualification for the recipients of kindness but that they lack.  Here is no talk of “worthy poor.”  And the extra to be given seems awfully close to necessity – the second tunic is extra.  Reader, look  in your closet to see how many shirts are in there.

To Tax Collectors, John advised that they continue their work but with honesty.  Tax Collectors were contracted to bring in a certain amount for the state, and any extra they could keep. So normally they threatened trouble to get as much as possible.  John does not deny that this unpopular career is a legitimate career, but only if the collector kept to the amount they are supposed to raise. If you think things have changed in our feelings about taxes, check out how many politicians advocate an agenda of hiring more tax collectors.

To Soldiers, John gave similar advice. Soldiers served as both police and army.  They were paid poorly so the difference was made up with extortion.  John does not deny the need for a military or police force.  He at least is not a total pacifist. Be honest and live on your salary.

This is a very real world message. John did not say, “leave your secular job and become a missionary, and if you can’t do that be a pastor, and if you can’t do that start a Bible study.”  This is not to say that people are not called to those tasks.  In this passage, John has another message. He said pursue your vocation with honesty.  This includes at least two very nitty gritty vocations.

He did not say, “deny food and clothing and live in the desert.”  But he said, share what you earn with people in the community around you.

This is a prescription for everyday justice.  How we deal with our possessions and how we pursue our work is part of our calling (vocation.)  There are larger political and structural issues about Justice, but certainly those do not exclude personal lifestyle justice decisions we make every day.

John’s Two Endings – John 20, 21

shepherd with crookIt would see as John 20:31 is the perfect ending of the book.  It summarizes John’s overall message very clearly:

“These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, And that by believing you might have life in his name.”

But the book has one more chapter.  Is it an appendix of some sort?

I think that Chapter 20 summarizes the response of faith to the Gospel.  We focus on John, Peter, Mary Magdalene and Thomas as they come to believe that Jesus did rise from the dead.  Each person responds differently, but each comes to faith.  Then in effect, John turns to the reader and says, “these (chapter 1-20) are written that YOU might believe…”

This explains why Mary Magdalene is singled out, when in the other gospels we find that other women were also at the tomb.  John is not telling all that happened, he is telling us how faith happened for these four people.

John 21 is about following the Lord.  If we ended with John 20 we might conclude that the faith is merely personal and that when I meet the Lord, I am done.  But the brief call to mission found in John 20:19-22 is expanded in Chapter 21.

There we find two images – fishing and shepherding.  Both of these are strongly tied in the Gospels to leadership.  Peter, Andrew, James and John were called to become fishers of people.

In chapter 21 we find three commands – all directed to Peter.

“Throw your net there…”  In a replay of events recorded in the synoptic gospels, Jesus suggests a fishing strategy to fishermen.  They had caught nothing until they followed his instruction.  We are to read this larger than the story.  In being “fishers of people” the apostles will only be effective when they follow the Lord’s command.

“Feed my sheep.”  Three times, because Peter had denied the Lord three times, he is asked if he Loves Jesus.  When Peter replies that he does, he is called to feed and tend the sheep.

Fishing is associated  in our minds with fishhooks, though these fishermen used nets.  Shepherding is associated with shepherd’s crooks.  So ministry is by tradition done “by hook or by crook.”

“Follow me.”  Peter’s initial call to follow is restated.  It is also made clear that Peter should follow the Lord and not worry about what the Beloved Disciple was doing.  The calling is individual and the Lord decides how to call each individually. It is not wise to envy or to compare.

John 20, in sum, is a call to faith in Jesus as the Savior.  John 21, in sum, is a call to follow him in service.