The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Good Cop, Bad Cop

Another Revised Common Lectionary Hackjob

by Mark Stenberg

Gospel Reading: Luke 3:15-22

For Sunday, January 13, 2013: Year C—Baptism of our Lord

Ripping the Revised Common Lectionary folk has become pretty standard fare. Excuse me for piling on, but this week’s gospel text is the RCL at its absolute worst.

The wags over at textweek will tell ya that this is one hack job on the part of the lectionary, shredding a single, carefully told story (Luke 3:1-22) into three bits that simply fail to tell the tale of John the Baptist handing things off to Jesus.

The Political Edge to Luke 3

As chapter 3 opens, Luke names the powers. From the mighty Roman Emperor Tiberius, to Pilate, to the evil and controlling father and son tag-team of High Priests, Anna and Caiaphas—it’s all very political stuff. The Roman coins claimed that Tiberias Caesar is the “son of God.” No, the voice in the baptism tells us, it is Jesus who is the son of God.

In Luke, John the Baptist is not some weird, crazy hick. He is a political prisoner. He is less Harry Dean Stanton, more Nelson Mandela. He is taken away and locked up. Silenced. For speaking the truth about injustice in high places.

Not only did John the Baptist speak the truth about Herod’s wicked accumulation of money and power, he also was a direct threat to Herod’s economy. He was teaching tax collectors and soldiers not to extort or bully the people. He was teaching people to share their stuff. All of this was too much of a threat to Herod, to his system. So The Baptist is locked up.

Stuck in the Role of Bad Cop

For all the rich political edge to his over-arching tale of love in the midst of Empire, Luke gives short shrift to John the Baptist. Not counting all the hoopla about his birth, Luke spends a paltry 20 verses on John the Baptist.

Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke doesn’t even tell the gory but gripping tale of Herod serving up John’s head on a platter. Furthermore, as a character in the story, doesn’t he seem rather flat and lifeless? He’s the bad cop. He’s no fun. He’s like your cranky Uncle Roger who shames you for the way you hold your knife and fork.

The Hardest Question

We can infer that John the Baptist had a wide and active community of followers that were merged into the Jesus story. Why does Luke create such a wooden, one-dimensional figure out of the rich legacy of John the Baptist and all his followers? And what does this say about the whole great big community of active disciples of John the Baptist?

Is this just another case of history being written by the winners, trampling over the rich details of those on the underside?

Mark Stenberg is a trained academic theologian who got side-tracked planting churches. He started House of Mercy House of Mercy, with co-pastors Debbie Blue and Russell Rathbun in 1996 and ten years later he left that call to launch Mercy Seat Lutheran Church along with his current colleague, Kae Evensen. Mark holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University where he studied philosophy with the likes of Jürgen Habermas. He is also an adjunct professor at Luther Seminary, teaching in homiletics and in the D.Min. program. Mark lost his spouse to cancer in March of 2007 but is profoundly grateful for every moment he gets to spend with his amazing children, Angela and Mateo.


  1. The Hardest Question says:

    OK – it looks like the comment feature for THQ has been bottled up by a licensing issue buried deep within the labryrinth of our plug-ins. We are still working to uncork it.

    Thank you for letting us know about this rather puzzling state of affairs!

  2. Timothy Boeglin says:

    I have been fascinated since Seminary,(1970s), regarding the play in Luke between John and Jesus. It is a seemingly battle royale between the disciples of one with the other. The account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a good example. Luke appears to take special care in asserting that Jesus is the Messiah. Furthermore we have texts in Acts and Paul’s letters that appear to declare baptism in Jesus over other forms(John’s?- e.g. Acts 19:3; 1 Cor:3.) Then there is the origins of the Mandaeans, who still practice their rite to this day. Was Luke having a theological rumble with the followers of John the Baptist early in the Gospel? Has anyone done research on this question?

How do you read?