When John the Baptist preached, people came out in droves to confess their sins and be baptized by him. It was a spiritual bath, a ceremonial cleansing accompanied by a profession of sorrow over sin. But John verbally attacked the penitents who came out to be baptized, accusing them of being self-serving snakes, slithering out of the grass as if fleeing an approaching brush fire.
“You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” Luke 3:7b-8a (NLT)
From John’s perspective, repentance had fruit; proof that there was genuine sorrow and a real turning to God. The fruit didn’t consist simply of confession and baptism; there was something more practical by which to measure repentance. So the crowds asked him what they should do. What would give evidence that they had really died to the old way of seeing the world and living life and been born completely anew and alive to God and his kingdom? To each group that asked John this question, he gave an economic response.
The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.” Luke 3:10-14 (NLT)
Repentance was not real if you hoarded clothes or ignored the cries of the hungry. If you were a tax collector, you could not really be penitent if you continued the common practice of adding a surcharge to people’s tax in order to line your pocket. Soldiers were notoriously underpaid, but they could not repent and continue to force people to give them money at the point of a spear. What’s more, they had to find contentment with their meager income. These are the things which would serve as sure sign that the people coming to confess their sins were serious about repentance. The proof is in the pudding – or in this case in the padding of their wallets.
The connection between repentance and finances shows up in the story of Zacchaeus and in the parable of the sheep and goats. I believe it can be read into the exchange between Jesus and the rich, young ruler and throughout the book of James. It makes me a bit nervous. Just what does my generosity and attitude about money reveal about my faith in God and my sorrow for sin? Do I display the fruit of repentance according to John the Baptist?