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

St_John_Baptist

{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.

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The Pregnant Vocabulary of Micah 6:8

Micah68Another part of the Favorite Verses series is Micah 6:8.  What I am noticing is that the words are loaded with associative meaning in this verse.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

“mortal” is ‘adam“.  Translated a man or here in the NIV, ‘mortal’.  Remember this association when we get to walking humbly, and how the first couple (adam includes male and female – Genesis 5:1-2)  walked with God in Eden until they upset justice by not keeping a command.

“good” is how God described the created world in Genesis 1. The parts of creation were in place and working properly – except for “adam” being alone.

“act” is a word in Hebrew that can mean simply to do in a general sense, but it is also used many time to “make” or “offer” a sacrifice.  In the the previous verses the prophet gives voice to the question of the people: what offering should we bring?   The answer seems to be to bring justice.  I don’t think this is a denial of the role of sacrifice and worship, but that those actions were to encourage and accompany a life of just living. The following section lists some of the injustices of the people.  The Prophets often say that worship does not compensate or cover up an unjust life (See Isaiah 1).  Isn’t this an interesting comparison to Romans 12 – where the apostle says that our reasonable worship is to “offer” ourselves as living sacrifices and follows that with a chapter with many practical applications of the command to love God and love Others.

“mercy” is the Hebrew word “hesed” which can mean kindness, or mercy. It can also refer to a covenantal idea.  God has committed himself to merciful faithfulness to his people.  As a result he expects merciful faithfulness.  Our faithfulness is to God and our mercy is for others.

“love” is the same verb as the great commandment, to love the Lord your God.  There is no separation between loving God and loving mercy.  “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his maker.” Pv 14:21.

“walk” is a widely used metaphor for our course in life. (e. g. Psalm 1 ) The original couple walked with God in Eden, until they with a profound lack of humility attempted to “become like God” by breaking the solitary prohibition that they had been given.

To “do” – Romans 12

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

To ‘love” – Matthew 22:34-40

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

To ‘walk” – Deuteronomy 5:22-23

32 So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. 33 Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.

Great Book – because it is a Fresh Read

I am reading Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice.  After living through a lot of decades where the question of spiritual life and social change, or the gospel and justice or words and works or orthodoxy and orthopraxy or about a dozen other contrasting concepts have come and gone, this book is a fresh look at the place of justice in the scripture.

What we usually end up with are arguments that are the same as the political debate of the day (with some “Jesus words” thrown in).  What we don’t often get is Christian Thinking.  I have grown tired of repackaged political rhetoric passing for bible study.  I am no longer interested in counting the number of times the word “saved” is in the bible in comparison to “the poor.”

Keller has thought about these things from a deeply biblical framework.  His discussion of the place of justice, and the place in particular of justice for the poor, the widows, the immigrant and the orphan is refreshing.  He draws on everything from Job to Proverbs and Deuteronomy to Isaiah in the Old Testament.  Then he turns his eye to the teaching fo Jesus.

The most profound insight is that biblical justice demands a personal commitment to raise the afflicted to a place of well being.  “When every one beneath his (or her) vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid” (Micah 4:4) is not just for me, but for Larry who has been knocking at my door looking for a few bucks for 15 years now.  What will elevate Larry to that place?

I am still reading and will write a more complete review when I am done.  I also plan to post a few personal reactions as well.