This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent in Year C of the lectionary cycle. The opening verse of the gospel is from the people who have just heard John the Baptist proclaim the coming wrath of God (Luke 3:7) and they shout out, “What should we do?” What is clear from John is that judgment on the basis of one’s fruit/deeds is at hand: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees” (v.9).
In this John’s warnings are consistent with the message of the prophet. In other words, if one continues without repentance, inevitably one will be “be cut down and thrown into the fire.” In the face of this warning people ask what they should do. It is the same response the crowd will ask Peter at Pentecost for which Peter replies: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.”
Three different groups ask, “What should we do?” John points them to their jobs and personal relationships. True repentance is a matter of the heart and results in change in everyday behavior. That is why the word “do” is repeated several times in vv.10-14. Each group wants to know the appropriate response to John’s call; each reply points to how others are treated. The answer is in the spirit of the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments, which deal with how one relates to God and how one relates to others as a result. John makes it clear that our post-repentance acts represent and should point to a new way of responding to God.
The people should be ready to share their clothes, if they have more than they need: if someone is without clothes, clothe him. The same response goes for food. Luke reports John’s ethical and social concern, the call to give willingly to others and meet their needs (negatively, 12:13-21; positively, 14:12-14).
The tax collector is simply to collect the appropriate taxed amount, not extort additional monies. In the first century, tax collection was loaded with middlemen, who each added their own surcharge, so the potential for abuse was great. The soldier is not to take advantage of his authority; he is not to oppress the citizens with threats or violence. In ancient times a soldier was paid only enough to maintain a basic standard of living. Service to an institution does not mean one has the right to rob or take advantage of others’ powerlessness.
John’s answers are stated directly and concretely. The penitent is committed to fairness to neighbors, sensitivity and responsiveness to others’ needs, and willingness to accept a “no-frills” standard of living (cf. 1 Tim 6:8). John does not tell the tax collector to seek a new job, but to perform his job faithfully and compassionately. How we treat others is a litmus test for how we are responding to God. As Jesus says later, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).