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Commentary: Luke 3:7-18

Context
This passage comprises special Lukan material which the evangelist inserted into the account of John baptizing the people. It forms a contrast to the preceding pericope in which John harshly rebukes those, presumably the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 3:7)1 who come to be baptized. He calls them "vipers."2 He upbraids them for relying on their Jewish birth for salvation and warns them that judgment is about to take place (cf John 8:33-39). There is no explicit reference to the Messiah, only the coming wrath on the Day of the Lord. In our pericope it is secular persons who come as candidates for baptism. They do not rely on their birth, but they do look for a Saviour. Luke's interest in such people and in universal salvation is typical of his Gospel. The toll collectors and soldiers are obviously males, but women would certainly be included in the "crowds" in v. 10.
Structure
Our passage is part of a pericope which contains three units:
vv. 7-9 vv. 10-14 vv. 15-18
The central section shows three rhetorical questions asked by three distinct social classes, none of whom are privileged by religious or political status. They symbolize three sections of society who were eagerly awaiting salvation, the economically deprived, those bearing social stigma (the toll collectors) and those who are unwelcome to local inhabitants, the soldiers. John urges the poor to share even the basic necessities of life. He bids the toll collectors avoid an occupational hazard, for both the auction of taxes to the highest bidder and the collection of taxes (tolls, tariffs and customs) by agents were real temptations to corruption. In Galilee the toll and tax-collectors were responsible to Herod Antipas, and the soldiers mentioned in our text would be his employees. John exhorts them to resist the temptations of their occupation, violence, extortion and blackmail. They may have worked closely with the toll collectors. It is noticeable that John does not demand that these people relinquish their employment, rather they are to transform their lives in the everyday world.
Vv. 15-18 acquaint us with the atmosphere of expectation pertaining at this time especially among the groups just mentioned. Luke writes concerning the epoch when incipient revolt against Rome was brewing in Palestine,3 but his Gospel belongs to the time between the two great revolts against Rome. In the first Menahem and, possibly, Simon of Giora claimed messianic status, and in the second many people gave a similar honor to Bar Cochba as Messiah. John rejects the role of Messiah and predicts the coming of "the Stronger One." In the Septuagent this word is used of warriors, and John may well have expected a belligerent Messiah. Some light can be shed on this title from the Dead Sea Scrolls which anticipate a mighty warrior (geber). 1 QH 3:7-10 reads:
For amid the throes of Death she shall bring forth a man-child, and amid the pains of Hell there shall spring from her child-bearing crucible a Marvelous Mighty Counsellor; and a man shall be delivered from out of the throes (cf 1 QS 4:20-22).
Lukan Theology
Luke makes several statements about Jesus' status. He is far superior to John who is not worthy to do the most menial task for him by loosing his sandals. We may see the irony of this in the light of John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples' feet. He will baptize with the Spirit and with fire. There are three explanations of this curious phrase. It may refer to the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire on the occasion of Pentecost. It might allude to a baptism with the Spirit for the righteous and with the fire of judgment for the unrighteousness. "Spirit" might be translated as "wind" and then the visitation is seen as devastation with wind and fire, e.g., lightning. With regard to the last Fitzmyer (ABC vol I, 474) points to a parallel idea in the scrolls:
Then God will purge by his truth all the deeds of man, refining for himself some of mankind in order to remove every evil spirit from the midst of their flesh, to cleanse them with a Holy Spirit from all wicked practices and sprinkle them with a spirit of truth like purifying water (1 OS 4:20-21).
The Coming One has his fan in his hand. This refers to the winnowing fan, a pitch fork or shovel which the winnower used to throw the wheat into the air so that the wind separated the heavy grain separated from the light chaff. It is symbol of judging the people and separating the good from the bad (cf. Is 30:24). This simile continues the theme of wind or Spirit in the preceding verses.
Special Words and Phrases
Diaseio literally means "shake violently" but also "extort money by "violence" (3 Macc 7:21). Sukophanteo denotes to accuse falsely," but the root means to shake a fig tree so that the fruits fall down.
Affinity to first reading
One could read our pericope as fulfilling Zeph 3:14-18 (the first reading). Judgment is removed from the poor, the toll collectors and the soldiers. John announced the imminent arrival of the "Mighty Saviour," and the Good News is preached.
Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford
1. Mark says those who come from Jerusalem and Judea. 2. The image is one of the viper fleeing from a forest or field fire. 3. See the author's My Enemy is My Guest (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984), pp. 1-12.
Editable Region.