Take a coin out of your pocket. What does it tell you (other than it’s not worth that much in today’s economy!). Take a look at the pictures and symbols. Of course there are pictures of Presidents on them—Washington on the quarter, Lincoln on the penny—the are some of our iconic American leaders. On the back you’ll find symbols of our greatest places—the Lincoln Memorial, Monticello—and our national symbol, the eagle. You’ll find some Latin words and symbols, little markings that tell you where it was minted.
Generally speaking, we don’t think of coins that much unless we’re collecting them. In the ancient world, however, coins were more than just economic currency. Imagine a world where there are no newspapers, books, or photographs—no internet, no telephones. How do you get a message out to masses, particularly if you are a ruler who wants to control the news cycle?
The answer was coinage. Symbolism was extremely important and Roman coinage was used to announce a new emperor and set his agenda. Augustus, who we met at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, minted coins with with his own image on them and inscriptions like “Son of the Divine” and “Father of his country” on them. Tiberius, who was now the emperor, had coins struck with “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus” around his face, with a picture of his mother Livia on the back (no issues there). These coins were a way of announcing to the Roman world that the emperor was in charge and worthy of the worship of his subjects.
Lesser kings also minted their own coins, and that included Herod Antipas, who ruled the Galilee region at the time Jesus was an adult. Herod knew that he was ruling pious Jews who were known to revolt from time to time, thus he made sure not to violate the second commandment and didn’t put an image of a human or animal on his coinage. Instead, he chose a symbol to represent his kingdom of Galilee—the symbol of a reed that grew in great thickets on the shores of the freshwater lake.
Everyone used coins, thus everyone knew who was in charge. For Jews in Galilee in the early first century, the coins reminded them that they were still a subject people—subject to the pagan ruler in Rome and subject to the Roman puppet who sat on the throne in the town of Tiberius, named after the emperor, which Herod built on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (and renamed the Sea of Tiberius). Every time they looked at these coins, the people would feel the sting of their powerlessness and stoke the hope of a Messiah who would come and save them from this yoke of oppression.
John the Baptist had been preaching about the coming of that Messiah as he baptized people at the Jordan River. Remember his words of warning about the one to come? (3:16-17). Sounds like the kind of Messiah who will come to set things right.
But John was now in prison, put there by Herod Antipas for criticizing the king’s sexual politics of taking his brother’s wife. Nothing had changed. Herod and Caesar were still on the throne. People were still oppressed. There had been no fire, no winnowing of the wheat from the chaff. John had heard about what Jesus of Nazareth had been up to, but only by reputation. Remember that Luke’s Gospel is a little unique in that Luke doesn’t tell us that John baptized Jesus. According to Luke, John was already in prison by then. He didn’t hear the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism, announcing that this was the real Son of God.
It’s little wonder, then, that John began to question what was happening—or better, what wasn’t happening. Surely John had heard about what Jesus preached in Nazareth—“The Sprite of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But here he was in prison. Where was the release for the captives? Why were people still being oppressed? Where was the liberation? The situation was still the same. So he called two of his disciples and sent them to Jesus with the question burning in his mind and the mind of many others who had heard about Jesus: “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”
Are you the one? It’s a question of expectations and there were plenty of expectations about the Messiah. Like many other Jews of his day, John expected a Jewish Messiah who would redeem Israel from Roman oppression and usher in the kingdom of God, the reign and rule of God on the earth. John had heard that what Jesus had been doing was miraculous, but it wasn’t enough. So, John asks the question: Should we be looking elsewhere? This doesn’t look like the kingdom of God. It still looks like the kingdom of Herod. And above Herod, of Rome.
It’s ironic that John uses the language of sight here—should we look for someone else? Expectations are often like blinders that narrow our vision. We filter out those things that don’t seem to match what we expect. John’s vision is narrow, but Jesus will widen it.
In verse 21 we seen that Jesus was healing people of diseases, casting out evil spirits, and giving sight to a number of blind people—setting people free from the prison of disease, liberating people from evil, and giving sight—all things that Jesus had announced that day in Nazareth that would be fulfilled in his ministry. And so Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and report what they have seen and heard—the very things we have talked about so far in the Gospel—blind people see, lame people walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up, and the poor receive the good news. The kingdom is coming, but not in the way you expected. Happy are those who aren’t offended because of me!
Like many people, John expected the bold move, the public splash, the kingdom of God breaking in like an invasion force. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, however, was more subversive and secret. It’s not about preaching to the powerful or replacing one government with another by force—it’s about the reign of God beginning in the lives of people who will receive it. Jesus understood that the mission of God was to set people right—to set them free from the sin and brokenness that binds them—and once people are set right, then they can be used of God to set the world right. It won’t come by force, but by love. It won’t come by violence, but through suffering.
After John’s disciples leave, Jesus then turns to the crowd. The two disciples had asked Jesus on behalf of John, “Who are you?” and now Jesus turns the question around by asking the crowd, “Who is John?”
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” asks Jesus. Did you go out to see a reed shaking in the wind? The crowd would have understood that reference to the coins in their pockets and the king those coins represented. Did you go out there looking for a new king who would replace the one you have? Another kingdom as fragile and blown to and fro by the winds of change as that of the Caesars and the Herods? Were you looking for someone wearing the latest fashions, a cool tie, a designer suit? Then you were looking in the wrong place. A palace or the White House are where you find that sort of thing. It looks powerful, but it’s actually as week as a cattail reed.
No, says Jesus, you went out there looking for a prophet and you got even more than you bargained for. John was the one who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that means he is greater than any of these so-called rulers who sit in palaces. No greater human has been born that can equal John, and yet “whoever is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
“You want to see how the kingdom plays out?” says Jesus in effect, then you need to change your vision. You can’t see it if your eyes are fixed upward at gaining thrones of power and working for regime change. You can only see it if you’re low enough to need it—you’ll only see it if you are willing to be healed, to recognize your poverty, to be set free from the prison of sin, and to be raised from the dead life you’ve been living. That’s when you’ll see God’s kingdom come—when it comes in you and it comes through you to someone else in need.
The tax collectors, the outsiders and outcasts, got this message. Luke says they “acknowledged God’s justice because they had been baptized by John.” They had worked for the Romans and understood the nature of that power and its corruption—now they had a different vision of life. The Pharisees, on the other hand, didn’t see it at all. They had refused John’s baptism, seeing themselves as being above it, and thus they would reject Jesus, too.
The blinders of our expectations can lead us to criticize anything that doesn’t fit them. “To what will I compare the people of this generation? What are they like?” They’re like two sets of kids in the marketplace—one group play acting a wedding and the other play acting a funeral. “Hey, we’re celebrating over here, why don’t you dance?” yells the wedding group. “Hey, we’re singing a funeral song and you’re not crying,” yells the other. You’re not playing right.
According to the expectations of many at the time, neither John nor Jesus was playing right. John went out into the desert and lived a monastic life and they said, “He has a demon.” Jesus went to parties with sinners and they called him “a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Both John and Jesus are messengers of the kingdom, and both are criticized and dismissed because they didn’t meet expectations. It takes wisdom, Jesus says, to see the truth.
Are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else? It’s a question that everyone has to deal with when it comes to Jesus. It’s an especially relevant question today. It doesn’t look like much is changing; the kingdom seems far off. Caesar still sits on the throne in one form or another; politicians and pundits rule by stoking fear; people are still being oppressed; violence and hatred run rampant; division and dissension are the norm; criticism is the first thing out of the mouths of many. We keep praying for your kingdom, Jesus, but it doesn’t seem to be coming—Are you the one?
But Jesus invites us to change our gaze. Oh, the kingdom is here but it’s coming subversively. While you’re looking for the big move, you’re missing all the places it is breaking in—in the small miracles, in the germination of seeds of faith, in the back corners and dark alleys where the poor live; it’s coming in the form of lives changed one by one; lives where evil is being defeated, people are finding new life, and where those who were once bound by sin are being set free. The kingdom comes, the world begins to be set right, when people are set right. It comes among the weak, the unknown, the forgotten, and the least—not in the halls of power. It comes in ways that seem strange and even offensive to people whose expectations are self-serving. You have to get down low with Jesus in order to see it. And once you have seen it, experienced, then Jesus says, as he says to John’s disciples—go and tell what you have seen and heard.
Perhaps the reason our news is so dominated by negativity and fear is that there aren’t enough voices proclaiming the good news of what they have heard and seen Jesus do in their own lives and in the lives of others. Christians are quick to raise their voices in criticism of the culture and take partisan stands on political issues, but are largely silent when it comes to the things we’re actually called to talk about—we are to be spreaders of good news. We are called to see where Jesus is at work in those obscure corners of the world and in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, and proclaim those stories of good news to the world.
That’s all that evangelism is. It’s a dirty word in many churches—we think it implies dressing up in a suit and knocking on doors. But evangelism is simply telling someone the good news of what Christ has done in you. Have you been healed? Have you witnessed something miraculous? Have you been set free from some prison of sin or addiction? Have you had your eyes open to see a different vision of life because you encountered Christ? Have you discovered for yourself that Jesus is the one, and there’s no need to wait for another? That’s good news you need to share!
I wonder what would happen if each person in the room today decided to share at least one piece of good news this week within your social circle. Rather than commenting or criticizing, what would happen if we blitzed social media, the coffee shop, the dinner table, the water cooler, and the grocery store with stories of good news—Here’s what Jesus did for me! I think it would completely change our vision and our expectations. It would be a sign of the kingdom!
In fact, that’s my challenge to you this week. We’ve included a book mark of suggestions, ways that you can bless someone with something good this week and, perhaps, start a conversation. People are starving for some good news—we have the best news ever, and we’ve got to share it! It’s a very different form of communication, with even greater value than any gold or silver.
The rulers of the ancient world used coinage as a way of legitimizing their rule and trumpeting their importance. Those coins are now relics, however, and their kingdoms are long gone, like dried up reeds blown away in the wind.
The kingdom of God is forever. Blessed are those who have the vision to see it and spread the good news!
Dinkler, Michal Beth. “Luke 7:18-35.” Narrative Lectionary Commentary.
Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004. Kindle edition.