John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Translation: Therefore, he said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "Generation of snakes, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, do fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say in yourselves, "We have Abraham (for) father," for I say to you that God is able out of these stones to raise children of Abraham. But now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, not doing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire." And the crowds were asking him, saying, "Then what might we do?" He answered and said to them, "The one having two tunics must give to the one not having, and the one having meat must do likewise." Even tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not exact more of what is appointed to you." Soldiers were also asking him, saying, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not shake down, do not make false accusations, and be content with your wages."
But as the people were in expectation, all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered, saying to all, "I baptize you in water, but one stronger than I is coming. I am surely not worthy to release the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you in a holy spirit and fire, whose winnowing fork (is) in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather together the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Then indeed, with many other comforts, he was preaching good news to the people.
Background and situation: The reading is a continuation from last week's (3:1-6), hence the "therefore" in verse 7 (unfortunately not translated in NRSV). The word of God has come to John, who is preparing the way so that "all flesh" will see the salvation of God. Therefore, on the basis of that, Luke moves into the message of John.
Luke 3:7-9 appears to come from Q. It generally follows Matthew 3:7-10 word-for-word, with the notable exception of to whom John's comments are addressed. Matthew addresses them to pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus' primary opponents, while Luke addresses them to the rather indistinct "crowds."
The baptism of snakes, and their subsequent bearing of fruit: The crowds were coming out to be baptized by John for a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3:3). John calls them "brood of vipers," or "offspring of snakes." (Unlike modern politicians, preachers, or motivational speakers, John did not start his speech by flattering his audience.)
Why would "snakes" come for baptism? John suggests that they have been "tipped off"--hupodeiknumi, to warn privately or secretly--regarding the "coming wrath." They have the inside scoop, and they are trying to get right with God in anticipation of judgment.
John's response sets the tone for the remainder of the passage: "Therefore, do fruits worthy of repentance." The word poieo--do, bear--appears throughout the passage (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14) and, to mark this consistency, I have translated it as "do" in every case. The "therefore" in verse 8 (again not translated in NRSV) suggests that the "coming wrath" should be met with "doing" behavior that is aligned with God's purpose.
Repentance is not about changed emotions, but about changed ways of living. If they were expecting that a little dunk in the Jordan River would, by itself, get them right with God, then they are sorely mistaken. Rather, they are to "do fruits worthy of repentance." If they really want to be on God's side, they are to "repent"--change, turn--from following the status quo and, instead, change their lives.
Matthew's version of this story has the singular "fruit." Luke makes this plural--"fruits." Does this suggest that Matthew envisions a specific response while Luke allows for more latitude. Does Matthew expect a certain specific behavior while Luke expands the possibilities to include various "fruits"? The ensuing dialogs (3:10-14) suggest that it is possible for even tax collectors and soldiers to change their ways and "bear fruits".
Don't even start with me: John tells the crowds: Don't even start to tell yourselves--kai me arxesthe legein in eautois--that all is well simply because you are descendents of Abraham. If these people suppose that they are Chosen People through their hereditary connection to Abraham, they are sorely mistaken.
All claims to special status on the basis of birth are subverted. In fact, if they really want to get down to it, they are a "generation of snakes," and not a "generation of Abraham." Ancestry is no big deal. God can take a pile of rocks and make "children of Abraham."
The statement is preceded by a "truly I say to you" phrase, which is normally indicative of a special pronouncement. God has power--dunatai--to take something lifeless and inert, like stones, and "raise them up"--egeirai, resurrect--into life. Even in the face of recalcitrance and cluelessness, John asserts God's life-giving power.
Crisis: John then returns to the theme of judgment: "But now also the ax is laid to the root of the trees." Judgment is imminent. The ax is already at the root. "Every tree, therefore, not making good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire."
This is reminiscent of Malachi 4:1: "See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch."
John's words create psychological crisis. The "day of the Lord" is approaching sooner than anyone thinks, and, if you think it's going to be tea and crumbcakes, you've got another think coming. The time for action--repentance and right living--is right now, before it's too late.
The crowds seem to get it. Their situation is dire and demands a response. They ask, plaintively: "Then what might we do?" (The verb poieo is in the aorist subjunctive which, somewhat paradoxically, has to do with future actions.)
Jesus never seemed to care too much for these "what do I have to do?" questions, but John responds concretely. He gets situation-specific. If you have two tunics, and someone has none, give one of yours away.
This was a somewhat bigger deal than it might appear. Tunics (chiton) were the undergarment one wore underneath their coat. Most people had two of them, one they wore every day, and another they wore for sabbath.
John seems to be saying that the needs of your neighbor outweigh saving the sabbath tunic--or, to put it a different way, deeds of compassion outweigh the practice of religion. The general response of sharing is encouraged upon the "crowd."
Then, Luke says that "even tax collectors" had come to be baptized, a surprising twist. Tax collectors were chosen by bid. The job would usually go to the highest bidder, who would pay for the privilege up front. In turn, they would pass on the cost of their bid to those from whom they collected various taxes.
As one might expect, abuse was rampant. Yet, "even tax collectors" are struck by John's message. They even call John "teacher"! They, too, wonder, "What might we do?"
John replies, "Do not exact more of what is appointed to you." (NRSV: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”) John's remedy hints at the problem. These tax collectors routinely did take more than the proscribed fees, often much more.
Eduard Schweizer mentions a contemporary of Jesus, the Emperor Vespasian's father, whose statue in Asia Minor is inscribed with the words: "To the one who collected the tax well." He did so "well" at it that he was able to start a bank in Switzerland.
Next, soldiers speak up. Since we are in the region of the Jordan River, these soldiers were probably the minions of Herod, though this is not specified. Unlike the tax collectors, they do not call John "teacher." Their question indicates that their concerns are at the tail-end: "And we--don't forget us--what might we do?"
John's response is more abrupt with the soldiers than with the tax collectors. "Do not shake down, do not make false accusations, and be content with your wages." In the first phrase, the verb is diaseio, which literally means "to shake violently." More broadly, it was a reference to using violence in order to extort money--a "shake down," in other words. Another possible translation: "Do not inspire terror."
On the principle that you don't bother to make a rule against something unless someone is doing that very thing, John is back-handedly accusing the soldiers of using violence to extort money, making false accusations against people, and ripping them off.
The average soldier made about 225 denarii a year, about the same as a common laborer, less if the common laborer was fully employed. Extortion would have been a common temptation and practice. Stop it, John says. (Medena, a strong negative, appears twice in John's exhortation to the soldiers.)
The people had first wondered how they might respond to John's pronouncement of crisis. They ask what they might do to avert "the coming wrath." John responses are specific and call for justice. His answers seem to have impressed the people, and all of them wonder if John might be the Messiah--"...all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah."
The desire for the Messiah was particularly strong in the period from 200 BC to AD 100. The situation of the people was terrible, and they were crying out for someone to deliver them from it. Beyond that general desire, however, the people seemed to have little specific understanding of what the Messiah might do or how the Messiah would accomplish making their lives better.
Baptism with Holy Spirit and fire: First, John makes it emphatically clear that he himself is not the Messiah. He says to "all" that there is a marked contrast between himself and "the one stronger than I." John considers himself not even worthy to do the common work of a slave and untie his master's sandals to remove his shoes.
Second, John says that he baptizes with water, and sharply contrasts that with what "the one stronger" will do, which will be baptism in "a holy spirit and fire." The activity of the Holy Spirit is a major theme in Luke. He refers to the Holy Spirit 11 times in the first two chapters alone. Specific Lukan mention of "baptism with the Holy Spirit" are in Acts 1:5 and 11:16.
In the story of Pentecost (Acts 2), Luke cites the prophet Joel who affirms that God "will pour out (God's) Spirit on all flesh" (2:17). This is consistent with Luke's citation of Isaiah in 3:6 that "all flesh shall see the salvation of God". Throughout Acts, the Spirit is associated with enlivening the ministry of the church and broadening its reach. The Spirit's goal is ultimately universal.
The reference to fire has invited much comment throughout the history of the church. Perhaps fire is connected with the Spirit, as the experience of Pentecost would indicate (Acts 2:3). Or, perhaps fire is an image independent of Spirit, and recalls "the refiner's fire" of Malachi 3:2. In Malachi, the "refiner's fire" is associated with the "messenger" who will "prepare the way before me."
The only other use of the word "fire" in the immediate context is in verses 9 and 17, both of which indicate judgment and destruction, especially 19: "...whose winnowing fork (is) in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather together the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Fire is a purifying element. See Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15 where he says that "fire will test what sort of work each has done." Whatever is built on Christ survives the fire. Whatever is not is burned up. This is not bad, but good. Christians often seem to forget two things--first, that judgment is for our benefit, and second, that the one who judges us is the one who loves us the most.
Image: St. John the Baptist preaching, Raphael