When you get under someone’s skin, they let it out with a yelp, like a pinched puppy.
Now struggling with a crisis of conscience because of something you said, they have to do something. Their first impulse is to throw it back at you. They say, “What do you want from me? What would you have me do?” Maybe they want to put their choices on you. Hopefully, it’s a real question, owning their issues.
The one who calls for change is responsible for what happens next. Don’t say, “Figure it out. That’s up to you and God. Don’t ask me, ask God yourself.” No, owning the call means owning the Choice, too.
This first story of the one who came before Jesus is set in specific time and location. Luke wants us to know, by knowing the context, where and when it happened. And who was in charge. He says there were giants and tyrants in the land, who think they’re in charge. But here comes a prophet, and he’s asserting his authority.
John the Baptist, the Baptizer, is in the change business. Big, dramatic change. He talks of fire, vipers, axes, and of people who think a lot of themselves crashing down like fallen trees. Wrath.
The crowds, with ears to hear, have a crisis of conscience. Upset, they ask the question. Does John say, “Figure it out for yourself. That’s between you and God. I’m just here to baptize.” No! They ask the question, and he gives them tough Choices to make.
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Luke 3, NRSV
He’s vocationally specific with tax collectors and soldiers, the bureaucrats and cops of their day, people with power over other people’s money. John says, don’t take more of a cut for yourself than the law allows under the guise of government. Don’t shake down the vulnerable, even if carrying a badge means you can. Be satisfied with your wages.
And what’s he saying about food and coats? John says, it’s about recognizing when you have enough, and sharing the rest. He puts the answer straight to them, to make a Choice. If you can care for yourself, you’re obligated to care for those who can’t. If you’re comfortable, that pinch you’re feeling is your conscience strongly suggesting you share. Because if you get too big, too fat, too comfortable, too secure in yourself at the expense of others, you will come crashing down.