by Father Mike Stubbs
To situate a moment in history, we often simply give its date. To place it in context, we might provide more details. What other world events were taking place that year? What music were people listening to? What movies were they watching? What else was going on in the world?
Two thousand years ago, historians often would list the current rulers as a way to tag a significant event. That is precisely what Luke is doing in the Gospel reading that we will hear next Sunday, Lk 3:1-6. He begins by identifying the current Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar.
Then he proceeds to the local governor, Pontius Pilate. Next, he lists three tetrarchs of the region. And finally he mentions the Jewish religious leaders, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.
Why does Luke do this? None of the other Gospel writers take this approach. We already pointed out that this was common practice among historians at the time. Beyond that, Luke appears to have wished to place the events he was going to describe in his Gospel in the context of world history.
In effect, he was claiming that the life of Jesus was just as significant as the big shots ruling the world at the time.
Notice that Luke starts with Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth, who is living in Rome, the center of the empire.
Luke gradually narrows his scope to that insignificant corner of the empire, Palestine. And Luke draws our attention to an eccentric man preaching in the desert in this isolated section of this remote part of the world.
The man is John the Baptist, who would eventually be executed for his rash statements.
In many ways, John contrasts with the powerful governmental and religious leaders listed at the beginning of the reading. If it were not for his radical preaching, he would be an unknown. He lacks their political and economic power. His only power lies in his words. And they will not save him from death.
Notice how the Gospel reading describes the words of John: “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
The word of God —which eventually will lead to his death — places him in a class of his own, above those political leaders whom the world would have otherwise forgotten if it were not for John.
Clearly, when John the Baptist speaks, it is an earthshaking event. It is a word that brings life and death, forgiveness of sins and God’s mercy.