Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:1-6 Part 1
The world of Jesus was a world that was little concerned with quantity. Mathematics and statistics, descriptions of the world in terms of numbers, were of no cultural concern. Furthermore, manipulable numerals of the Hindu-Arabic type did not exist yet (ca. 8th cent. A.D.). Hence most historically oriented biblical scholars will tell you that numbers in the Bible are nearly always qualitative, rarely quantitative. The world of Jesus focused more upon persons and interpersonal relations rather than on objective, impersonal analysis like that expressed by quantification.
This focus on persons can be seen in the "calendrical" indications used by Luke to mark the time of the appearance of John the prophet. Significantly, only the Roman emperor's year of reign is noted, both for its importance in public records and to indicate a rather long, hence blessed, rule. But otherwise no number indications are used as in the text itself. Rather, Luke notes that John the prophet emerged on the stage of human events when significant Mediterranean personages likewise shared the stage, wielding the power that controlled human lives. For us, the names of the persons are highly important (see Exegesis). But for ancient Mediterraneans, it was the role that counted. And what was noteworthy about all these persons was that they exercised their power largely by way of patronage. To have a meaningful human existence in the territories they controlled, one had to be well-connected, at least locally, with a patron who might provide one with favors as the need arose. This system of patronage, a traditional Mediterranean way to deal with life's problems, is called clientelism.
Now amid such personages, John the son of Zechariah (lesser Israelite priest, in Judea) and relative of Jesus (presumably on mother's side, hence non-jural), is invested with the word of God, becomes a prophet, in the wilderness. His message to his contemporaries of the house of Israel is that the God of Israel was about to exercise his patronage with the forgiveness of sins. To explain why, Luke follows his cultural orientation by choosing the past as secondary value preference, a look into the scriptures of the past, describing events from the point of view of the God of Israel (quote from Is 40:3-5). While we might look at the scriptures to find "proofs from prophecy" pointing to the future, early Christians used the scriptures to clarify their present. Present time was the primary value orientation. When the present was full of problems, unclear in significant areas, then a look to the past would clarify the present. The use of the scriptures provided a divinely guaranteed glimpse of the past, shedding light on the present. This is not very different from the Roman maxim: "History is the teacher of how to live" (Historia magistra vitae). Since firstcentury Mediterraneans believed human nature never changed, a look to the past surely explained any presently occurring nebulous human situation. On the other hand, unlike us, they never used history or anything else to plan for future since they were totally unconcerned about the future.
In Luke's presentation God is not like a father worried about the psychological state of his children. "Abba" does not mean "Daddy," but "the Father," or "O Father!" (James Barr). Rather God is like a patron (hence, "The Father") concerned about the social welfare of his clients, just like all the power wielders mentioned at the beginning of this passage. In fact, Caesar was called "pater patriae" (Father of the Fatherland) insofar as patron of the people of Rome whom he ruled. Lukan Christians believed that Isaiah's "salvation of God" (Lk 3:6) comes with "the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6,10). "Salvation" means rescue from a difficult situation; it is not a particularly religious or theological word, but functions like our word "rescue."
The "rescue" John announces is "forgiveness of sins." In the gospels the closest analogy for the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts (Lk 11:4; cf. Mt 6:12), an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family. It was the result of being poor, that is, being unable to defend one's (inherited) social position. Forgiveness would thus have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one's place in the community.
However the lost social position here is that before God the patron; this lost social position is indicated by "sins," specifically actions that dishonor the God of Israel. Such actions are basically impudence since they attempt to shame God in favor of one's own honor. They thus make the God of Israel a laughing-stock both in Israel and without. Since no one stands up for God's honor, a honorable God can do nothing less than make a public restoration of his honor by humiliating those who attempt so futilely to demean him. This process of public restoration of honor is what the "wrath to come" (Lk 3:7) is all about (see the comments on Zephaniah for the 3rd Sunday of Advent). John's prophecy is that those who wish to share in the forthcoming forgiveness of sin (see the parable in Lk 3:9) must be dipped in water to symbolize their change of social lifestyle (repentance) and wish for God to restore their position before this heavenly patron. God's forthcoming forgiveness meant being divinely restored to one's position before God and therefore being freed from fear of loss of honor at the hands of God.
This "rescue" is the favor of God the patron revealed in the coming of his Christ, Jesus. Hence it comes as no surprise to find Jesus playing the role of "broker" or "mediator" of the kingdom of God, putting prospective clients in contact with God the Patron, thus to enjoy his favor. Bruce J. Malina