Last week Luke told us how John the Baptist “arrived” preaching and offering a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan. He came at a particular time in history, and as we will discover he paid the price for challenging the rulers.
This week as the chapter continues, we hear what John asked of those people, and he does not hold back in his language.
The crowd coming out from the city he likens to a swarm of snakes escaping their holes, fleeing from a fire as it were. “Don’t claim some religious ancestry” he says, but “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. Your past won’t save you!
The crowd are to share their second coat with the needy (and presumably their third and fourth coat too if they have them). Tax-collectors are to collect only what is due, not to add a whole lot more for themselves. Soldiers, presumably locals who have signed up for the local militia, auxiliaries, are told to refrain from violence and extortion. We immediately see how local people are oppressed and struggle in such a culture.
We live in a world where the money-people often take more than is fair, and where others use more subtle but just as pressured forms of extortion to make profits at the expense of others; cronyism is an unpleasant element of modern society, but we also benefit from cheaper prices for goods made by cheap labour.
John has a sense of urgency; he challenges our rather complacent, resigned, even laissez-faire culture. Our tendency is to claim Abraham as our metaphorical ancestor, to assume that we are basically all right, or at least not too bad, or at least better than (most) others; to work on the assumption that things have always been a bit like this; whatever recipe we come up with to decide we don’t really need to change. COP26 revealed some interesting backlash – some supporters decided that the cost of sorting the world out is too great, it would affect OUR life-style, maybe we don’t need to make all the changes; we like the benefits of our lifestyle! That makes us the unrepentant tax-collector or soldier – taking more than is our due!

This is a challenging hard passage, and is it made easier or more challenging by the final verse which describes this all as “good news”? The axe at the root of the tree, the winnowing fork to sort the grain from the chaff, the judgement of a holy God on a world and on those who ignore his teaching; is that good news? What is good news is that repentance is offered and can be received, those who have been away from God can find God, we who have not honoured God as we should are yet received, even those who were considered the worst. John came preaching truth, both judgement and forgiveness; the Greek word for judgement is krisis; in a crisis what choice do we make? How will we bear fruit worthy of repentance?

Rev’d Peter Reiss