(The following is an excerpt from a book I’m working on. Should be finished soon…)
There’s a fantastic scene in the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke where we’re introduced to the wild-eyed prophet, John the Baptist. Crowds gathered around him wondered if he was the One who was sent by God to save them and the whole world.
John greeted these curious onlookers who were coming to be baptized with these words: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?. . . The axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Later he speaks of Jesus, who is coming soon and whose winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Vipers. Wrath. Axe. Cut down. Winnowing fork. Unquenchable fire.
Then comes my favorite part: So with my other exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people.
I’m glad Luke cleared that up, because with all the axes, forks, and raging fires I almost got overwhelmed by all the ‘Good News’ going on here.
No one could accuse John of being Mr. Sunshine.
He was business.
So, where was this Good News anyway?
Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down (by the axe) and thrown in to the fire. The wheat is separated by the chaff (with the winnowing fork) and the chaff is thrown into the fire.
Separation is actually a major theme of the Bible. The Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 is full of separations: light
from darkness, waters above from waters below, dry land from water, day from night. In Exodus, there’s the separation of the children of Israel from the Promised Land, and the separation of the Red Sea to get them back to where they belong. In Leviticus clear lines are drawn to separate ordinary things from unclean things, and holy things from everything else.
Our God is a God who separates. Injustice is separated from justice. Righteousness from unrighteousness. Holiness from evil. Light from the Darkness.
So the crowds, after being called a brood of vipers and threatened with axes and fire, asked: What then should we do? In other words, so then, how can we avoid being cut down and burned? If there’s going to be a separation, how can we end up being on the better side?
Lucky for the crowds, John has an answer: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. . . Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. . .Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
(In some circles/ radio stations/ churches the preceding reading would be appropriately followed by the sound of crickets.)
So, to bear fruit worthy of repentance and maintain proper spiritual distance from absolute annihilation – be satisfied with what you have, and give from what you have with those who don’t have enough.
Trees which bear fruit, as opposed to fruitless trees, share. Wheat, not chaff, shares.
The Good News is that a King is coming – and He’s coming to inaugurate a Kingdom. And in this Kingdom people attest to the glory, and the power, and the majesty of God. . . by sharing what they have.
And those who don’t share with others and separated out and thrown into the unquenchable fire.
Now, before you think that this is a really, really bad rendition of a preschool teacher’s rant on sharing crayons, you have to read on in the writing of Luke to see how this is lived out. Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, which is the story of how the followers of Jesus carried on his ministry after his death and Resurrection.
Towards the end of the second chapter of Acts we find a summary of how the followers of Jesus lived:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread
and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were
being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things
in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the
proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together
in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and
generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And
day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Everyone was in awe. Wonders and signs were being done. They were selling all they had and giving to the hungry, the thirsty, and the poor. They held things in common.
In other words, they shared with each other, and anyone who needed it.
Jesus was risen from the dead. Death couldn’t hold him down. The Resurrection power of God was working wonders in the world. And to testify to the amazing things that God was doing. . . they shared.
They didn’t crash mountains into the sea. They didn’t levitate off the ground. They didn’t have halos floating over
They shared with each other. They shared with everyone. Jesus is risen.
There are a few things I notice about the Good News that John proclaimed which I think are important to the discussion at hand.
First, this is John teaching about Ultimate Things. People who don’t share will face eternal damnation. Unquenchable fire. They will be rooted out by God.
This isn’t just a nice morality lecture. This isn’t a Sunday School lesson on extracurricular ways to live a nice, quiet, fun-free life of Christian blandness. This is John, maybe the last of the Old Testament-brand prophets, saying that some will have God’s eternal favor, and others won’t. And the defining attribute of those who have God’s favor is: they share.
Second, look at what John doesn’t say. He says nothing about belief, faith, or the confession of sins. No altar call. No sinner’s prayer. No tears or hands raised in the air. When the people ask ‘what should we do,’ John doesn’t say anything about praying for God to come into their hearts, or finding a personal savior.
God will separate the fruitful trees from the unfruitful trees, the wheat from the chaff, and the qualifications for
separation rests on sharing what you have.
So with my other exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people.
The third thing is how similar this teaching of John the Baptist truly does echo through many of the teachings of Jesus himself, and especially in the Gospel of Luke.
Blessed are the poor . . but woe to you who are rich..
Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
. . .There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.
The separation that John the Baptist spoke of early in the Gospel of Luke gets a face later in the same Gospel when Jesus is teaching. There are two men. One is rich, while one is destitute. One eats to his fill, the other goes agonizingly hungry. One selfishly keeps his stuff to himself, the other could have benefited from some love, generosity, and sharing.
One went to Hell, the other went to Heaven.
The part of this story that absolutely kills me is that the rich man (who Jesus leaves nameless) while being tormented in Hell has the audacity to ask Abraham to have the once-poor and now-beatified Lazarus to fetch him some water! Not only is he asking help from someone that he didn’t help, but he doesn’t even have the decency to ask Lazarus directly.
What you see here is the condition of the rich man’s heart. Even in death, even seeing the results of his life choices, even separated from Glory by a great chasm – he still doesn’t get it.
Unlike an Ebenezer Scrooge who, upon seeing the effects of his life, repented this rich man was still clueless. Unlike the
Grinch whose heart grew three sizes, the rich man’s heart remains a cold, shriveled piece of coal.
And he’s still thirsty. Really thirsty. Being-burned-in-unquenchable-fire-thirsty.
I really believe that when characters in the Bible aren’t given a name, it’s because they are supposed to represent a larger reality. The un-naming makes it possible for that person to be any person – the person next door, the person we admire, the person we abhor.
I think the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is Jesus pointing his finger right at us and forewarning our fate if we don’t live according to one of the prime mandates of the Kingdom of God: we share what we have, because what we have is really God’s, and it’s really just on loan to us from above.
The wheat and the chaff are to be separated – the axe is at the root of the tree. So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people.
Damnation in this teaching of Jesus rests solely on sharing. Lazarus ends up in Hell not because of some apparent lack of faith or failure to confess a Savior. He is forever tormented in Hell because of how he treated the least of these around him. He had plenty, and he hoarded it.
The axe at the root of the tree took him out. The winnowing fork removed him from the wheat. He was separated.