We live in an age that is characterised by two obsessions – sex and money. Many years ago Richard Foster wrote a book called Money, Sex and Power, which focussed on the three things that he saw as the preoccupations of our day. Reading Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s preaching ministry, all three of these get a mention, either directly or indirectly, but the issue of money and possessions is at the forefront.
John was gripped by the conviction that the Messiah – a mythic figure in the Jewish imagination – was about to appear in Israel. John had come to understand his purpose in life as preparing the people around him to meet this Messiah. He gained this understanding of himself this from prophetic statements in the Jewish Scriptures that he had appropriated for himself, as I have mentioned previously. He was a man with a deep sense of the holiness, the purity, the otherness of God. However, as he looked around him he saw a people who were far removed from that holiness, a people preoccupied with their own little lives, and yet they were a people who saw themselves as God’s people. As he pondered the imminent arrival of this God-figure, this Messiah, in their midst, he was aware that the people around him had no idea what this would mean. He feared for them, because he could only imagine that God in their midst would mean certain destruction for them. How could such imperfect people co-exist with such a holy and perfect God?
So he developed a unique style of preaching in which he challenged people to face up to their own imperfection, their own lack, to be open and upfront about it, and to publicly commit to turning away from it and live life in a more God shaped way. This is what it means when it says that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Jewish people were the people of God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, and if that God was going to show up in person in some way then they wanted to be ready for him. It was a difficult time in Israel’s history. They believed that many of their difficulties would be resolved when the Messiah came, and they wanted to be on the right side – God’s side – when he made his appearance. So they submitted to John’s uncomfortable message. They got baptised and they made a show of their commitment to God, even if it went against their human nature to admit they were lacking in any way, just as it goes against ours.
John was a powerful preacher – he got a response from his listeners. But once the deed was done, the immersion in the Jordan River complete, they wondered what came next. Was that it? So they asked, quite simply, “What should we do then?” John’s answer is noteworthy:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors 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.” (Luke 3:11-14 NIV)
John’s audience was clearly a mixed one. He did not speak only to the poor – there was a middle class there listening too, the well off (those with possessions to share), wealthy middle men (tax collectors), even soldiers, who would presumably have been either Romans, or Jews who had for whatever reason become part of the local Roman military. The thing these people had in common was a certain level of financial prosperity – compared with he poor of the day. They were not “bad people” in the sense of murderers, adulterers, thieves, blasphemers – indeed they may well have seen themselves as rather normal. Financial prosperity was seen then as now as a sign of blessing, and striving for wealth was not seen as a bad thing. Though getting it by shady tax dealings or by using military authority for extortion was frowned on by all, even if they were fairly normal practices. Clearly some of the people John challenged were wealthy without having resorted to questionable practices – perhaps they were just successful, perhaps their wealth was inherited, but they had not broken any law in getting to where they were.
But the message to all is the same, focussing on the issue of wealth, implying that whether gained honestly or dishonestly it can be a problem. John provides some solutions to stop wealth becoming an obstacle for being godly: if you are wealthy and possess much, share it with those who have little. If you are wealthy because of shady financial dealings, stop profiting at the the expense of the innocent, be honest in your work. If you are have power over the local people because it has been invested in you by the authorities, do not take advantage of that power in order to get rich yourself.
Many of us find ourselves in the same position as John’s listeners. It is easy of course to say that we are not like tax collectors or corrupt military, but it doesn’t take much reflection and self examination to see the similarities. We are wealthy because we have been blessed by God. We are wealthy because of tax evasion (a modern form of tax crime). We are wealthy because we have used our position in society to get what we want.
Money and possessions are amazingly attractive to us. We spend our lives trying to get them and when we have got them we do everything in our power to hold on to them. We are eager to get, and often reluctant to give. They easily become the focus of our lives and if we don’t have them we spend a lot of time wishing we did, worrying about not having enough, thinking about how much good we could do if we only had a little more.
This obsession, this preoccupation, according to John the Baptist, stands in the way of a right relationship with God. Money and possessions have taken the place that God should have in our lives, our first love, our delight, the goal of our lives. John speaks to us as much as he spoke to the people of his day. He did not say that money was wrong in itself. He did not tell tax collectors to stop being tax collectors, or soldiers to lay down their arms. He did not tell the rich to become poor. He simply said that we should be honest, we should not be motivated by the pursuit of riches, we should be generous. This is God’s way of using wealth.
John wanted people to be prepared for the Messiah when he turned up, and he knew that one of the main obstacles to being ready was the chasing after and the hoarding of wealth, pursuits that he saw had taken over the lives of so many around him. Even the poor were not immune to a longing for, a worship of, material prosperity. Society in general saw wealth as a very legitimate thing to focus attention on. Prosperity and material gain were seen as good things, not bad, much as they are today. The trouble, however, is when they become the meaning of life. Then they become an obstruction to knowing God. They take his place and we miss out on the greatest riches available to us. If we want to have hearts prepared for Jesus then we would do well to heed John’s challenges.