Strange people seek repentance

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- As I was reading our gospel from Luke, (3:10-18), what struck me was the different groups of people to whom John the Baptist spoke. First there are those rather loosely called ‘the people’, the crowds. Now, clearly, since they are the crowd that had followed John out into the wilderness, they were not the respectable, and certainly not the Pharisees, the religiously correct, those who fulfilled the minutiae of the Jewish law. They are the am-ha-arets; those groups who because of jobs or disability were unable to fulfil the daily demands of the law, often lumped together as the ‘poor’, though that may not have been literally true; shepherds were ritually defiled by their tasks, as were undertakers; dyers and laundry workers, the sick and many others. On these John urges a communal, a sharing society, with obligations to each other.

A picture is beginning to emerge; for the next specified group are the tax-collectors. Now these were not the civil servants of our day. Wealthy men often bought tax collecting concessions from the state and then employed their henchmen and small armies of private thugs to collect the taxes, and you can imagine the tactics used by them to extract taxes from the poor – since they were the major tax payers in ancient society; and as the aristocracy were largely exempt. Tax collectors naturally collected more (often much more) than the tax due, and pocketed the rest, and on these we see that John urged no extreme rate. We can imagine the shock his acceptance of them occasioned, since tax collectors often grew wealthy by their practices and were detested by their victims. Imagine too, the idea of such people going to John to repent! Naturally, Jews engaged in this behaviour were deemed quite beyond the pale, because of their dealings with defiling foreign governments and their pagan influence.

In turn, soldiers came to John for baptism. Now, most likely these men were pagans, foreigners. If they were Herodian army men they came up from Idumea in the south, where he came from, whilst Roman soldiers at this stage largely came from Italy or North Africa. Foreign occupation was universally detested because of the havoc soldiers inflicted, frequently being billeted on the native population, or simply instructed to live off the fruits of the land without making payment. We note John’s instruction to them, no intimidation, no extortion. Yet there they were, hated foreigners all turned up to receive a baptism of repentance from John!

We should assume that messianic expectation was rife among the peoples of the region and that John the Baptist touched a raw nerve amongst this highly varied collection of peoples and, no doubt, in the end it was this political threat to the establishment that brought about his execution. John was a very dangerous man, and the message he preached potentially highly explosive.

And he and his message were very attractive, as we can see. It’s the same with Paul’s message in Philippians, (4:4-7). I often think from the way we read our bibles that it’s amazing anyone followed Christ; we make it all so dull and boring! Not so John the Baptist! Not so Paul writing to his Philippian converts – not with a limp ‘Be happy’, but as the Greek has it ‘Rejoice!’ It is a letter of vigour and life to a lively and steadfast but tiny Christian group tucked away in northern Greece. It is an acknowledgement by Paul of their active faith and their attractiveness, as convert numbers grow. Paul, so full of the Spirit writes to encourage and inspire, support and enliven even though he is hundreds of miles away, probably in Ephesus. His inspiration kept them going and full of hope, and we too need some of their life and vigour if the faith is to be kept alive in out day too.

Quite clearly this was what kept faith alive and growing all the way through, as we discover in our reading from Zephaniah, (3:14-18). He was writing in the late 7th century BC as the power of Assyria waned and the prophet saw that change was in the air for the captives in Assyria and their ruined homeland. He writes to encourage and prepare them for the changes to come, to rouse them to action. The Lord God is in your midst, a victorious warrior…..Zion, have no fear, do not let your hands fall limp…. As we get ready for Christmas we too must prepare and above all, be enthusiastic – that’s how to inspire others.

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