Luke’s Gospel of Mercy

The readings for Sunday, December 13, Third Sunday of Advent, Cycle C, are
Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:10-18.

More than the other three Gospels, Luke’s Gospel is a “social” Gospel, a Gospel of mercy, a Pope Francis Gospel. Luke’s “social” theme is emphasized in the first part of this Sunday’s Gospel. We know of the Baptizer’s popularity not only from our four Gospels but also from other Jewish literature of the first century of our era. Flavius Josephus was a Jewish military leader, a priest, and a historian writing about the time of the composition of Matthew, Luke, and John. He writes as follows of John the Baptizer, “…a good man, who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue toward one another and piety towards God…. Herod (Antipas) …was afraid lest the great influence that John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, since the people seemed ready to do anything John would advise….”

Luke apparently had the same opinion as Josephus did of John’s influence over the people. Therefore he brings onto center stage three different groups of people coming to John for advice. The first group represents everyone. Luke calls them “the multitude.” Thus he writes, “The multitude asked him, ‘What shall we do?’” John’s answer echoes parts of Jesus’ last will and testament in Matthew 25, the good works catechisms call “corporal works of mercy,” feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Thus Luke’s version of the Baptizer advises the multitude, “The one who has two coats, share with someone who has no coat. The one who has food, let him do the same.” We may think the corporal works of mercy are inventions of Christianity. Not quite! These works are part of our inheritance from the Old Covenant. Listen to Isaiah 58:6-7, where God speaks through the prophet, “Is this not the fast that I choose, to share your bread with the hungry…, and when you see someone naked, cover him….” Ezekiel 18:7, 9 proclaims as righteous the person who “gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment….  Such a one is righteous, he will surely live, says the Lord God.”

A second group approaches the Baptizer, the Internal Revenue Service. Luke writes, “Tax collectors also came to John to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’” It is interesting that Luke separates tax collectors from the multitude. This separation reflects a social custom of first century Jewish life. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the hated Roman occupation forces in Palestine. They would buy a franchise from the Romans to collect taxes from their fellow-Jews. This made tax collectors a hated class — first among sinners. Thus one often reads the phrase, “tax collectors and sinners,” eight times in the gospels. It gets worse! Twice we read, “tax collectors and prostitutes.”

The Romans allowed tax collectors to keep a percentage of taxes collected. Their business lent itself to abuse because they could demand more from taxpayers than was justified. Thus the Baptizer advises, “Collect no more than you are supposed to collect.”

Tax collectors were accompanied by a military detachment, for good reason — the danger of assassination. These bodyguards of the tax collectors also approach John, “And we, what shall we do?” They had a bad reputation for extorting money from taxpayers, perhaps a protection racket with the threat of a false report to a Roman authority that so and so did not pay taxes. Thus the Baptizer advises, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, but be content with your wages.” A good translation: “Don’t shake anyone down!” Luke began this scenario with a “multitude” approaching John.. Now he returns to the multitude and John’s popularity and influence, when he writes, “All the people debated among themselves concerning John, whether perhaps he might be the Messiah (Christ).

The humility of the Baptizer forces him to reject any thought that he might be the long awaited Messiah. “John answered all of them, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is en route. I am not even worthy to untie his sandal cords.’”  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” What Luke means by “fire” is not clear. It is however clear that only Luke depicts the arrival of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire. That same Holy Spirit is given in Christian baptism. The fire may be invisible but its effect is often seen in the burning enthusiasm of converts or in long ago baptized Christians who undergo a conversion experience.