Last year we spent a few days examining the life and mission of John the Baptist. I don’t mind telling you that he’s a big hero of mine. I’m not about to go out into the desert and start eating locusts and honey, but there’s a lot about him that we need to emulate. His single-minded devotion to his all-consuming purpose of exalting the Messiah above himself is the primary thing I have in mind. As far as John was concerned, public attention was a zero-sum game. Any amount of public attention which he (John) received was that much less attention paid to Jesus, and that was unacceptable to him. Another thing which comes to mind is his willingness to stand before kings and whoever else would listen and tell them what they needed to hear. A word from a king and he'd be a dead man (which of course is what eventually happened), but he couldn’t care less. Whatever God told him to say, that’s what he would say.
But today’s a good reminder that he actually had some ethical teachings as well. Yes, his primary focus was on preparing people for the coming of the Messiah, but that also entailed getting them ready morally. The spiritual state of Israel around the time of the first coming was pretty sorry.
Today’s passage starts out with John’s standard warnings. Please note the underlying basis of his moral teachings: There’s a time of wrath coming. God is love, but he hates and must punish sin. Lots of Jews no doubt believed that they were safe because they were physical descendants of Abraham. In fact, there was a popular teaching that Abraham stood at the entrance to Hell and examined everyone coming in. If he found that you were circumcised, he'd intervene and send you up to Heaven instead.
John’s response to that type of teaching? Stop fooling yourself! Having Abraham as your physical ancestor is no guarantee that you’re right with God. I mean, how could anyone who knew their Bible at all believe that garbage? Read any of the O. T. prophets, please. Physical children of Abraham are a dime a dozen: God could produce as many as he wanted from these stones. As the old saying goes, God has lots of children but no grandchildren. So get right with him! Start doing what he tells you to do! His “axe” is about to swing, and any “tree” not producing fruit is going to fall and burn.
So the people asked a good question. If the Lord wants us to start living right, what specifically does he want us to do? John then responds with three commands. The first is a general one meant for everyone. The second and third are for specific groups, but they still hold some meaning for us.
First on John’s list is generosity with your possessions. We don’t really possess our possessions. God owns it all, and he’s loaned some of it to us. One day he’s going to call us to account for it, and hoarding it all up is not a good option. If you see someone in need, help them. The amazing thing is that he had to tell them this.
His second admonition is towards tax collectors. As I mentioned before (or as you’ve undoubtedly heard), this group of characters was considered the worst of the worst, the scum of society. First and foremost they were traitors to their own nation. Rome was the brutal occupying force, and they were perfectly willing to be collaborators with it, much like the French people responded to those who'd cooperated with the Vichy government. On top of that, they were well-known for cheating the tax payers. Rome demanded a certain amount of money, and whatever the collectors gathered on top of that, they got to keep. John told them to stop cheating people.
The third set of instructions is towards Roman soldiers. By the way, this is a huge testimony to the incredible impact of this man. These are hard-bitten, cynical men who'd seen the worst of humanity. Also keep in mind the typical attitude of Roman soldiers towards Jews, and these would be the absolutely dead last candidates for listening to a Jewish teacher. And they heard this crazy preacher from the desert and were willing to do whatever he said. And what did he tell them? He told them to stop intimidating people and to not “shakedown” innocents for cash, both common practices.
Here’s an important thing to consider. Not once did the preacher tell them to quit their jobs, just to be ethical in how they carry them out. That tells me there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those professions. Taxes have to be collected, and the state has to have force available to it.
So what can we get from this? I’m not a tax collector, and you might not be a soldier. But you might be in a profession in which it’s common to do the wrong thing when no one’s looking. But you can be the “light” in that darkness, and you can be the “salt” to keep it from spoilage. You can be, and you need to be.
Lord Jesus, you have pretty high expectations, don’t you? I know, I know. Your grace is going to make me into what you want me to be, right? Thank you.