This Sunday we will try to listen and take seriously the radical message of John the Baptist. I believe it is an important message for us, just as it was an important message for Jesus himself and his early followers. But unlike Jesus and his followers, we have a problem.
John the Baptist did not speak to us directly. He did not deliver his message in our language. (Our oldest records of his preaching are already translations, to Hellenistic Koine, the old popular Greek.) He delivered his message almost 2,000 years ago. He addressed it to a very different society from our own (it was a pre-industrial rural Mediterranean society) and he addressed it to a completely different audience, predominantly to expropriated, and exploited peasants from Judea.
Thankfully we are not the only ones or the first ones with this problem. The Evangelist Luke had this problem long before now. Luke undertook an uneasy task to translate the charismatic eschatological Judean prophet for an urban Hellenistic audience. It was an courageous endeavor instigated and inspired by Luke’s conviction of the great and universal importance of that message.
We must take Luke’s endeavor seriously. He highlighted the social justice dimension of John’s message. But by re-directing the message to a different audience, Luke also unavoidably changed the message and unfortunately watered down the radical eschatological edge of John’s prophetic message.
This Sunday we will take seriously Luke’s Johannine Catechism (the social justice oriented question and answer from Luke 3:10-14) and learn from its message. But we also need to take seriously the inherent problems and shortcomings of Luke's translation strategy. Unfortunately, for centuries and almost exclusively, social teaching of many churches stopped at this watered down and tamed cultural translation of prophetic preaching. We must recognize this reality and get deeper, farther and beyond it.
We need to humbly accept, that we are not the original audience. We need to unlearn this "self-centered" middle-class appropriation of the prophetic message, which takes this message away from the original audience and their heirs. We need to re-contextualize the prophet and accept with the full seriousness that the primary audience were and remain people on the margins, the neglected, the abandoned, the disinherited of his time and of our time! We owe it to John the Baptist and to the divine spirit who inspired him.