Sunday, December 6, 2015
John the Baptist’s preaching
Prepare for God’s coming
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
The Gospel text of the second Sunday of Advent speaks us of John the Baptist, prophet, in the desert preparing the way for the Lord. For centuries, people were living in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and the ever more burdensome Roman occupation increased the desire for the coming of the Liberator, the Saviour. The presence of John in the desert was a sign that God was once more visiting his people. Redemption was close at hand!
Luke is careful to place the coming of John the Baptist within the socio-political and religious context of the time. On the socio-political level, Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod governor of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. Then, using a biblical text, Luke places John within the religious context of God’s plan and says that he came to prepare the realization of the secular hopes of the Messiah’s coming.
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Luke 3:1-2: Placing John’s action in time and space
Luke 3:3: A summary of John’s political activities
Luke 3:4-6: Biblical light shed on John’s activities
1 In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar's reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the territories of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 and while the high-priesthood was held by Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, in the desert.
3 He went through the whole Jordan area proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet:
A voice of one that cries in the desert:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight!
5 Let every valley be filled in,
every mountain and hill be levelled,
winding ways be straightened
and rough roads made smooth,
6 and all humanity will see the salvation of God.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What pleased or struck you most in this text? Why?
b) Where and when does John come on the scene? What is the significance of this specifying of the time and place?
c) What is the significance of the biblical references for an understanding of John’s activities?
d) Desert, way, paths, valley, mountain, hill, winding ways, rough roads: what is the significance of these images to better understand Jesus’ activities?
e) What is this text’s message for us today?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) Yesterday’s and today’s contexts:
* Luke places John’s activities in the 15th year of the governor Tiberius, Emperor of Rome. Tiberius was emperor from 14 to 37 A.D.. In 63 B.C., the Roman emperor had invaded Palestine and imposed a severe form of slavery on the people. Popular uprisings followed each other especially in Galilee, but were harshly suppressed by the Roman legions. From 4 B.C. to 6 A.D., that is while Archelaus was governor, violence broke out in Judea. This fact forced Joseph and Mary go back to Nazareth in Galilee and not to Bethlehem in Judea (Mt 2:22). In 6 A.D., Archelaus was deposed and Judea became a Roman Province whose Procurator was appointed directly by the Emperor of Rome. Pilate was one of these procurators. He ruled from 25 to 36. This change in the political regime brought a great calm, but occasional uprisings, such as the one of Barabbas (Mk 15:7) and their immediate repression by the Romans (Lk 13:1), were reminders of the extreme seriousness of the situation. Any little spark was enough to create the fire of revolt! Calm was just a truce, an occasion offered by history, by God, for people to look again at the journey they had undertaken (cf Lk 13:3.5) and, thus, avoid complete destruction. Rome was cruel. Any revolt would spell the end of the Temple and the Nation (Giovanni 11:48; cf Lk 13:34-35; 19:41-44).
* It is in this context, about the year 28 A.D., that John the Baptist comes on the scene as prophet in the desert. Luke speaks of the great expectation that arose among the people concerning the preaching of John the Baptist, who proclaimed a baptism of conversion for the forgiveness of sin. Today too there is a great desire for conversion and reconciliation with God, which manifests itself in various ways: the search for meaning in life, the search for spirituality, the international movement of the World Social Forum “A different world is possible!”, and many other religious movements. Social workers and politicians are searching for a more human world and thus confirm this desire for conversion or reconciliation with God. Advent is the proper time to renew in us this desire for change, for conversion and for coming closer to God.
b) A commentary on the text:
Luke 3:1-2: Recalling the old prophets
The way Luke introduces the preaching of John is very similar to the introduction to the books of the old prophets. These mentioned the names of the kings of the time of the prophets’ activities. See, for instance, Isaiah (Is 1:1), Jeremiah (Jr 1:1-3), Hosea (Hos 1:1), Amos (Am 1:1) and others. Luke does the same thing so as to say that if for nearly 500 years there was no prophet, now a new prophet has come by the name of John, son of Zachary and Elizabeth. Luke is concerned with placing these events in time and space. He introduces the names of the governors and describes the places where John worked. In fact, salvation history is not separate from human and personal history.
This concern of Luke’s, arouses our curiosity. Today, when a person is ordained to the priesthood or professes final vows, it is usual to print a holy card recalling the date and place of ordination or profession and some meaningful phrase from the Bible or a saint is included to express the significance of the ordination or profession in the life of the person concerned. However, we never come across a holy card saying, for instance, “In the fifth year of Bush, president of the United States; Blair being president of the council of the United Kingdom; Prodi president of the council of Italy; Zapatero president of the council of Spain; and Joseph Ratzinger Pope, named Benedict XVI, I received my priestly ordination to proclaim the Good News to the poor, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed and to proclaim a year of grace of the Lord!” Why does Luke choose to give the dates of salvation history together with those of the history of humankind?
Luke 3:3: Repentance and forgiveness
John goes through the region of the Jordan preaching a baptism of penance so as to obtain pardon for one’s sins. Repentance (in Greek: metanoia) means change, not just in one’s moral behaviour, but also and above all in one’s mentality. Change in one’s way of thinking! People were to become aware that their way of thinking, influenced by the “yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (Mk 8:15), that is by the government’s propaganda and by the official religion, was wrong and had to change. Pardon brings with it reconciliation with God and with the neighbour. In this way, John was proclaiming a new way for the people to relate to God. Reconciliation will also be the mark of Jesus’ preaching: reconciliation even “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22).
Luke 3:4-6: A definition of John’s mission
Luke quotes the following text from Isaiah to assist readers to better understand the meaning of John’s preaching: “A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the desert a way for Yahweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be levelled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; then the glory of Yahweh will be revealed and all humanity will see it together for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken’” (Is 40:3-5). In this text, Isaiah proclaimed the people’s return from exile to Palestine and he described it as though it were another Exodus. It was as if the people, coming back from the servitude of Babylon, were leaving Egypt and entering once more into the desert. For Luke, Jesus begins a new exodus prepared by the preaching of John in the desert.
The Gospels of Matthew (Mt 3:3) and Mark (Mk 1:3) also quote the same section of Isaiah, but they only quote the first part (Is 40:3). Luke quotes the full text up to the point where Isaiah says: “and all humanity will see the glory of the Lord” (Is 40:5). The expression “all humanity” means every human being. This little difference shows Luke’s concern for the communities, that the prophets had already foreseen this openness to the pagans! Jesus came not only for the Jews but so that “every human being” might see the saving power of God. Luke wrote his Gospel for the community in Greece who, for the most part, were converted pagans.
c) Further information:
John, the prophet – Since the sixth century before Christ, prophecy had ceased. "No prophet any more", it was said (Ps 74:9). People lived in expectation of the prophet promised by Moses (Dt 18:15; 1 Mac 4:46; 14:41). This long waiting period ended with the coming of John (Lk 16:16). The people did not consider John as a rebel like Barabbas, or like a Scribe or Pharisee, but as a prophet longed for by all (Lk 1:76). Many thought he was the Messiah. Even in Luke’s time, in the 80’s, there were still those who thought John was the Messiah (Acts 19:1-6).
John appears and proclaims: "Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand!" (Mt 3:2). He was jailed because of his courage in denouncing the errors of the people and of those in authority (Lk 3:19-20). When Jesus heard that John was in prison, he went back to Galilee and proclaimed the same message as John: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the gospel" (Mk 1:15). Jesus carries on from where John left off and goes further. The Old Testament ends with John and in Jesus the New Testament begins. Jesus even says: “I tell you, of all the children born to women, there is no one greater than John, yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk 7:28).
The content of John’s preaching (Luke 3:7-18) – John draws the crowds by preaching a baptism of change and forgiveness of sins. This shows that people were ready to change and wanted to relate to God in a new way. John denounced errors and attacked privileges. He said that being children of Abraham was no guarantee nor did it give any advantage before God. For God, he said, the stone and the child of Abraham were the same, because "God can raise children of Abraham from these stones!" (LK 3,8) That which advances a person in God’s sight is not the privilege of being a child of Abraham but actions that produce good fruit.
Luke talks of three categories of people who ask of John: “What must we do?”: the people (Lk 3:10), the publicans (Lk 3:12) and the soldiers (Lk 3:14). The answer for the people is simple: “Anyone who has two tunics must share with the one who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same!” (Lk 3:11) This is a clear answer: sharing of goods is the condition for receiving God’s presence and to pass from the Old to the New Testament. In his answer to the publicans (Lk 3:13) and to the soldiers (Lk 3:14), John asks for the same thing, but applies it to their situation. The publicans must not receive more than is permitted. The exploitation of the people by the publicans was a plague in the society of those days. Soldiers must not resort to extortion or false accusations and must be satisfied with their wages.
In the 80’s, when Luke is writing, many people still thought that John was the Messiah (Cfr Acts 19:3; 13,15). Luke quotes John’s own words to help readers to place the figure of John within the framework of salvation history. John acknowledges that Jesus is stronger. The difference between him and Jesus is in the gift of the Spirit who will be transmitted through Jesus. Luke shows that John’s concept of the Messiah was incomplete. For John, the Messiah would be a severe judge, ready to pass judgement and to punish (Lk 3:17). Perhaps that is why John, later, had difficulty recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (Lk 7:18-28), since Jesus did not behave like a severe Judge who punished. Rather he said: “I judge no one!” (Jn 8:15; 12:47) Rather than judging and punishing, Jesus showed tenderness, welcomed sinners and ate with them.
6. Praying Psalm 15 (14)
Lord, who can enter your sanctuary?
Yahweh, who can find a home in your tent,
who can dwell on your holy mountain?
Whoever lives blamelessly,
who acts uprightly,
who speaks the truth from the heart,
who keeps the tongue under control,
who does not wrong a comrade,
who casts no discredit on a neighbour,
who looks with scorn on the vile,
but honours those who fear Yahweh,
who stands by an oath at any cost,
who asks no interest on loans,
who takes no bribe to harm the innocent.
No one who so acts can ever be shaken.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.