“What should we do?” This is what the people ask John the Baptist in response to his preaching. In today’s reading from Luke, we are told that crowds were journeying out to the banks of the Jordan to hear this preacher who, like so many of the prophets before him, Zechariah included, was calling people to repent and refocus their lives on living in a way that would please God.
The city of Jerusalem, the countries of Israel and Judah, were part of the Roman Empire— Luke’s historic note at the start of the chapter reminds us of this. Jerusalem is not the invincible city of Zechariah’s vision; it is occupied by foreign soldiers. It is into this political situation that John preaches repentance and a sense that God’s reckoning of his people is imminent. Again, like many prophets before him, John tells the people that it is not enough to make claims to be God’s chosen people, the children of Abraham, if they do not behave like God’s children.
John uses the imagery of bearing good fruit, what he calls the fruit of repentance. In response to the questioning crowd, he gives practical specific examples of such fruit: if you have two tunics give one to the man who has none; share your food with the needy; do not misuse positions of power to cheat or bully people. The fruits of repentance can thus be seen in lives that look outward, that show compassion to others.
Turning to God involves turning to one’s neighbours. John prepares the way for Jesus, who comes to him to be baptised. And Jesus will reinforce this message in action and story. To live right with God, to be righteous, involves us in learning to live right with our neighbours. It sounds so simple, and yet we find it so hard—which is why we constantly need to repent and pray for forgiveness and grace.
What should the fruits of repentance look like in my life?
What simple things could I change to make me more outward-looking, more concerned for the well-being of others? In the Bible, repentance is not just personal but political. How can I play my part in campaigning for a more compassionate world?
Gracious and generous God, forgive me for the self-centeredness that limits my vision. Grant me your grace to see where I can make changes in my life and in my world, so that I may bear good fruits; for the sake of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.