Once again, reading the text of the Bible carefully reminds me why these blog posts do me at least as much good as they do any readers who happen along. Certainly I wasn’t unaware that John the Baptist tends to show up each year during Advent. That’s no great surprise–after all, who better to join us as we anticipate the arrival of the Christ? And as North American culture becomes more desperately and breathlessly optimistic as each Christmas season tries to top the last, who better than John the Baptist to give us some refuge from the cheerfulness with a good, heavy ax at the root of the tree?
And of course, I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about John. He only appears in a few verses in each of the four gospels, and his main roles in the plot are to set the stage for Jesus and to die so that Jesus can become the undisputed main holy-man in Palestine. But as I read this, I realize that at least Luke’s version of John the Baptist (that’s the text for this week, so I’m keeping my nose out of Matthew and Mark and John for the moment) does something astounding here: although he later becomes foil to Jesus, in the early run, he’s doing Jesus-work before Jesus ever shows up at the Jordan.
Here’s where assuming familiarity can get in the way: everyone knows that, in Luke’s version, John encounters crowds of folks seeking baptism, and among those who show up are tax collectors and soldiers. And because the whole “love your enemy” and “don’t resist an evil-doer” are such difficult texts to swallow in the age of sovereign nation-states, in which we have soldiers instead of martyrs as our main national saints, usually folks deploy Luke 3 as a proof-text to show that being a soldier is not forbidden to the faithful, so long as said soldiers don’t extort the locals and remain content with their paychecks. And to be fair, as far as prooftexts go, it’s not a bad one: a reader looking for texts that do not directly condemn those who receive pay for being in the military can certainly find one in Luke 3. And of course, when Jesus tells the woman in John 8 to “go and sin no more” he could be referring to pride or envy and not adultery, and that’s the sort of fun one can have when arguing from silence, but that’s not what’s really cool here.
What’s really cool about the soldiers’ presence here is that they come into the narrative along with tax-collectors. I talk and write all the time about the broad contours of what Pharisees and other Jews who expected a successor to David longed for: they wanted someone with a sword, who would raise up an army to put the foreign occupiers out of Palestine and to put the collaborators with the Kittim (the Dead Sea Scrolls tend to call them that instead of Romans because they had a major naval base at Cyprus) to shame for collecting their taxes and helping them in other ways to maintain their occupation.
So later in Luke, Jesus scandalizes the nationalist Pharisees and the insurgent Zealots (one of whom had become one of the famous twelve disciples) when his first public declaration is that God is about to show favor on the foreigners before faithless Israel and when his last public act as a free man is to disrupt the operations of the Temple, declaring that insurgents (lestai is far closer to our modern term “terrorists” than our term “theieves,” making the Temple a terrorist base more than a “den of thieves” that one might see in a mobster movie) had no business making God’s house of prayer for all nations their base.
So when tax collectors and soldiers come to be baptized, and when John baptizes them, the counsel he gives to both groups assumes that they continue to do their work collecting money for the foreign pagan occupiers and enforcing the will of the foreign pagan occupiers not indefinitely. After all, the salvation of God is coming, and violent military occupation seems to be among the things that don’t last when the Reign of God shows up. Instead, just as 1 Peter calls on the faithful to respect the emperor and to respect slave-owners and otherwise to live at peace with the world as they find it for the sake of bearing good witness, and just as 1 Corinthians calls for order as well as liberty for the sake of winning over those who aren’t yet ready for the full craziness of the Spirit’s coming, and just as Jesus himself points to a high officer in the foreign pagan occupation as an exemplar of faithfulness, so John here allows that, for the time, God’s invitation to cross the Jordan into the promised land extends even to tax collectors and, yes, even to the very soldiers who murderously enforce the will of Caesar, so long as they live those provisional lives within ethical boundaries.
For someone like me, steeped in political ideas that tend to go all-or-nothing, to demand radical change right now and to swear off as enemies anyone who will not acquiesce, this is really hard stuff. But Advent is supposed to be tough, I’m pretty sure. That the world needs saving is hard to admit, and that God loves those whom I regard as enemies to justice and goodness–and continues to do so even as they continue to occupy the unjust system–is even harder. And when I think that I can find refuge in hard-nosed prophetic figures when Jesus smudges the lines too far, along comes John the Baptist, giving Torah to soldiers and tax-collectors as if they already weren’t the enemy.
May Christ lead us to forgive as John the Baptist is already forgiving.