[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The figure of John the Baptist is one of the most hard-nosed, gruff and determined in all of scripture. He is so rough we can scarcely figure out what to do with him amidst all of the schmaltz of the holiday season, which, as Jon Stewart said last week, has grown so big it is now threatening to eat Halloween. Indeed, Halloween is probably more suited to the Baptist by contemporary standards than anywhere else on the calendar because he threatens us with his forthrightness. There isn’t a soft edge to the man as far as we can see, except perhaps just after birth, which was where he made his last appearance in Luke.
The Dead Sea Scrolls gave us a great deal of insight into what kind of socio-cultural factors went into making someone like John the Baptist, a man of austere ways possessed of a single-minded devotion to the cause of proclaiming the kingdom of God from the hinterlands. The Qumraners were a community of people who lived in a similar fashion, preached a similar message and inhabited a similar wilderness locale as did John.Their leader, the otherwise unnamed Teacher of Righteousness, seems to have been part of the guerrilla coalition under the leadership of the Maccabees, who got off the bus when it became clear that the Maccabees were neither going to relinquish the high priesthood to the proper Levitical families, nor were they going to re-establish the Davidic monarchy, but instead were going to hog (pun intended) both offices for themselves. The Teacher of Righteousness and his followers retreated to the wilderness, far away from Jerusalem, believing as they did that God was going to destroy the city for its wickedness in not setting up a proper biblical government and temple cult. When the end of the world came, as the apocalyptic Qumraners believed it soon would, you didn’t want to be anywhere near downtown Jerusalem, which was going to be ground zero.
Now we have no idea whether or not John was an Essene, as the Qumran community was known in antiquity, Regardless, learning as we have about the Dead Sea community has been invaluable in helping us plot John into the larger biblical story, as well as into the socio-cultural world of first century Roman Judea. The careful pastor need not dwell on this overly long, but giving congregants some of this background can help make John more understandable, and thus memorable to people who live far from apocalyptic circumstances. John was part of a larger movement of outsiders from mainstream Judaism of his day, who preached the eminent coming of the kingdom of God and the destruction of the old order, which was corrupt. And that corruption was not limited to the Roman occupiers but extended also to the Jews who collaborated with them.
A second major point of emphasis for the pastor interested in the politics of the text has to do with the tax collectors. Taxation and tax collection are repeated themes in all of the gospels, and with good reason. Luke, for example, had just used, in chapter 2, the reason of a census for tax purposes as the narrative device to get Mary and Joseph, whom everyone knew were from Nazareth, down to Bethlehem so that their baby could be born in David’s city. The reason for the issues prominence in the narrative mirrors the significance in the politics of the first century.
Under Octavian aka Augustus, taxes paid by the Jews had gone to Herod the Great, an Idumean (Edomite) who ruled Judea for the Romans. Herod then gave Caesar his cut. After Herod died, however, the Romans began a system of direct taxation that absolutely galled the Jews, both because they resented paying these gentiles directly but also because the tax was so onerous it would’ve made Grover Norquist blush. Classical authors say that the tax laid on the Judeans was higher than in any other province, seemingly as a result of the constant fomenting of revolt under messianic pretenders, which we hear about in Jospehus. Small wonder then, that the gospels contain so many stories about taxes and tax collectors—everyone was obsessed with, both Jews who had to pay it and Romans who got to reap the rewards.
In the middle were the tax collectors themselves. The Roman system at this time would put the right to collect taxes in the various provinces up for bidding. Usually a wealthy senator or someone of the upper class would pay the tax required by Rome, then take the right to collect from the people and begin to soak the province which they had won. They did this through an even further set of middlemen, the people who collected the taxes themselves all throughout the provinces. The people, of course, never saw the Emperor, nor did they get a glimpse of the senator who won the concession for their province. What they saw was this guy standing at the door with his hand out. He represented both the evil in himself, as well as all the evil in everyone for whom he stood and in whose name he collected. For at each stage of this process, everybody took, as Tony Soprano always says, a little taste. No one is taxing just for what Rome needs, but also to line the pockets of everybody involved in the scheme, all the way up to the top. Tax collectors were thus understood universally to be corrupt. A Pew poll released last week said that car salesmen were the least trusted people in America. There was no such poll in antiquity, but if there were, tax collectors would make car salesman look like Mother Teresa in terms of popularity!
And this is what is at the heart of the story this text tells us. John comes preaching a message of the kingdom in the strongest possible terms—You brood of vipers! As part of his message, to which people seem to be responding, is that they need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That is, don’t just sit there saying you did wrong. Get up and show that you understand by doing something different. And of all the people who might have grasped this message, low and behold, it’s those nasty tax collectors, the worst people imaginable, who come and ask what they should do to show they really mean what they say about having been transformed. Which is to say, that the narrative presents the very embodiment of a social outsider, confronting the epitome of the empire in the form of the tax collector, who is fundamentally transformed by the encounter.
This is important to note as a tendency of the gospel of Luke and its sequel, Acts. Unlike Mark, where the authorities are recalcitrant and a heart for the kingdom is scarcely evident even among Jesus’ followers, Luke’s gospel presents people in society bending towards the good news, being shaped and transformed by it, even in unlikely quarters. This is because, while Mark’s political theology is deeply pessimistic about government and society and the church’s relation to both, Luke is much more sanguine about the church working with the state. They’re not all bad, Luke seems to say. We can work with these people. Thus Luke’s perspective, especially in the book of Acts, will be tremendously important for shaping how Christians thought about life in the world, particularly since Jesus did not come right back, as Matthew and Mark thought he would.
Pastorally, Luke’s story of John engaging the world with the message of the kingdom and the world-changing as a result, is an exhilarating tale that the pastor should share with relish. John is not fearful of the powers at work in his world, nor was he pessimistic or cynical about their capacity to be redeemed. During this Advent season in which Christians are often thrown off their stride by the sheer weight of all the stuff, which tends to blunt our sense of mission to the marginal, John’s bracing word concerning what is most important in life and his example of sharing that word even with the people seemingly
least likely to respond, can remind church members of the power of a message of a new kind of kingdom where love rules can break through even the hardest of hearts.
Timothy F. Simpson is Editor emeritus of Political Theology. He is pastor for worship of the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church and teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.