Historical Culture Context
Repentance and Forgiveness of Sins
The heart of the Baptizer’s message is the need for repentance. The Greek word and its Hebrew counterpart were very familiar to his listeners. In ordinary daily life the words meant simply “a change of mind.” In a religious context the same words took on the meaning of “broadening of horizons, transformation of experience, reform of life.” We commonly use the word “conversion.”
In the Judaic mind the religious sense of these words included the idea of “turning” to God from ways that are disobedient or displeasing. In exhorting the prophet Ezekiel to be a faithful preacher, God says: “If you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness or their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity” (Ez 3:19). Clearly a human effort is demanded: a personal taking stock and a resolution to do something about what one discovers.
Turning to God will obtain forgiveness of sins. The Baptizer does not explain his meaning, but in the Gospels, the closest analogy for this phrase is “forgiveness of debts.” This, in fact, is what Luke writes in his version of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins for we too forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Lk 11:4; cf. Mt 6:12). Here, sin is the same as debt.
Peasants are very familiar with debt. They live in debt all the time. In the peasant world of first-century Palestine debt threatened the loss of land, livelihood, and family. Recall Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-25 where the man who could not pay the ten thousand talents he owed was ordered to be sold together with his wife and children and all his possessions so that the debt could be collected.
That peasant succeeded in begging forgiveness from the king (Mt 18:27). He managed to save his life and his honor. Unfortunately, he did not reciprocate to a fellow peasant who owed him far less. In the end, the king commanded this ungrateful wretch “to be tortured” until he would pay his entire debt (Mt 18:34).
In today’s Gospel Reading, the Baptizer is urging his listeners to turn to God from their wicked ways so that God would forgive and forget what was owed. For John the ritual of washing in the Jordan symbolized this turning. Though the specific meaning of John’s ritual washing is never explicitly explained in the Gospels, a similar practice at Qumran provides a plausible background.
In the Qumran Rule of the Community (5:13-14) we read: “They [prospective members of the community] shall not enter the water [in order] to share in the pure meal of the saints [the Qumran community], for they shall not be cleansed unless they turn from evil-doing; for all who transgress his word are unclean.”
Given the general Mediterranean cultural delight in deception and lying, prophets and reformers affirmed that God is not pleased with or duped by pretense or sham. A person who resolved to turn or return to God had better be sincere and honest in every dimension of the ritual. Such a person had better do what the ritual washing symbolizes.
How does a modern American believer hear the Baptizer’s message? Living in a prosperous and powerful nation “under God,” where God’s blessings seem everywhere evident, what does an American believer have to convert “from”? And what does this believer have to turn “to”? These questions are not easy to answer, but this week of Advent is an opportune time to think about them.
We will hear the Baptizer’s suggestions next week.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University