Fruit in Keeping With Repentance

I've never been a huge fan of John the Baptist. I guess I've always envisioned him as a sort of first-century hellfire preacher - the sort of pulpit-pounding moralist who rails against miniskirts and alcohol and loud music. The kind who glares down at sinners and riffraff from beneath a furrowed brow, and yearns for the good old days when people wandered in the desert and wore camel-skins and were serious about God. You know the kind I mean.

John certainly sounds like a hard-ass. His slogan is "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near", which has a kind of a doomsday-prophet ring to it, and he greets the crowds who come to hear him preach as "You brood of vipers". He also warns that the Messiah will come and "burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire". Hard-ass.

Normally when I think of John I don't get much past the call for repentance and the "brood of vipers" line. But we get a glimpse into the content of his preaching (i.e. what he calls for repentance from and to) in Luke 3. John tears into the crowd for not "producing fruit in keeping with repentance", and the people ask him what exactly he wants them to do.

John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."

That's interesting. The crowds may have expected John to mention clothes and food, but he doesn't seize the opportunity to tell the them what kind of tunics they ought to wear (ankle-length, I would imagine, and preferably a coarse, itchy fabric) or which foods they shouldn't eat (the Jewish law is big on dietary restrictions, and John himself ate only locusts and honey). Instead he calls for compassion and charity. From this one comment, you'd almost get the idea that the coming kingdom is less about laws and purity and more about social justice. And it goes on.

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"

"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"

He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely — be content with your pay."

I'm struck by the practicality of John's teaching. Ethical business practices. Justice. Honesty. Compassion. These are the fruits of repentance. John seems to have no interest in long lists of religious laws. (He seemed to get along with those who kept them no better than did Jesus, and for the same reasons.) He also doesn't seem to care about respectability or avoiding the appearance of evil - after all, he never tells the tax collectors and soldiers to quit their disreputable jobs, only to do them with integrity. And he certainly didn't focus on matters of doctrine.

John's a real turn-or-burner, but at the same time he's radically compassionate. His style isn't quite to my liking, but his message, I think, is bang-on.

On a related note, I couldn't go through all of Lent without linking to Isaiah 58.

1 comment:

BruceA said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking post.