Professors in the classroom can usually tell whether students understood the lecture or not. What gives probability to the veracity of that observation is that when students from different cultural backgrounds wind up asking the same question.
In the Gospel for the third Sunday in Advent (Luke 3:10-18), it appears that John the Baptist was able to get his message across because three different groups from various backgrounds wound up asking the same question, which was “What should we do?” The three groups were: Those standing around John as he was preaching, some tax collectors, and soldiers.
What was John’s reply to these groups? To those folks around him, his response was twofold. “To those who have two cloaks, give one to the person who has none.” And, “Whoever has food should do the same.” The basic response was to share clothing and food with those who have none.
To the tax collectors John said, “Don’t charge more that what has already been established.” The focus here was honesty. I don’t have to tell you that there are folks who would think little of cheating you.
And the third group consists of the soldiers. They may well represent anyone who wears a uniform which presumably gives them authority over others. And what was their Johannine response? The soldiers (most likely the policemen of our day) were not to abuse people, nor to make false claims about those they were arresting, and they were supposed to be satisfied with their wages.
What are we to make of this group? Well, one might wonder why John chose to focus on “wages” since the other two items deal directly with dealing with other people. Nevertheless, the focus seems to be recognizing the dignity of others. Most likely the reference was to the belief that we are all created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). Therefore, one must so act.
The assembled gathering was pleasantly surprised to hear these responses from John, so they asked him if the were the Messiah (the one sent). He said “No,” and spoke about Baptism to justify his answer. Of himself, he said “I am baptizing you with water.” Of Jesus, he said “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…” Water vs. Holy Spirit and Fire. What is the difference?
John’s baptism with water indicated repentance. This was basically an interior process. Jesus’ baptism was with the Holy Spirit and Fire. Quite likely subsequent readers understood the message of Pentecost, which was the coming of the Holy Spirit motivating recipients to preach the message of Jesus to others–with the same power and energy as spreading fire. That is to say that Jesus’ baptism was not only interior, but also exterior.
What can we learn from this Gospel? Above all, especially during this time in Advent, we are all asking “What can we do?” Faced as we are by so many needs, John’s answer to the three groups can be the same answer for us.
First of all, share with others who would include the poor, the sick, the stranger. Sharing food and clothing would be a good start. Second, honesty with others. Our credibility is enhanced once people have a sense that we are fair about how we handle money. Thirdly, if we seem to be in possession of authority because of the uniform we wear, treating other people kindly by not abusing them or saying things they did when in reality they didn’t would be treating them with dignity.
Finally, focusing on our Baptism reminds us that in addition to repentance we are also motivated to proclaim the message of Jesus to the world. Taking account of the above lets us know that John’s comments have made him clear to us.