When Christians talk about soldiering, one passage that comes up often is from Luke’s gospel where John is preparing to baptize his cousin Jesus at the River Jordan (Luke 3:1-20). The thinking goes something like; “Jesus didn’t condemn these specific soldiers, so therefore he doesn’t condemn soldiering in general.” What more can this tale of the unnamed soldiers tell us about what is really going on?
The “few” soldiers are likely part of a small guard detail accompanying the tax collector mentioned in the verse prior. This was not uncommon. Even Herod Antipas had Roman soldiers assigned to protect him. The chief priests that plotted against Jesus had a Temple Guard that answered (more or less) to the religious establishment in Jerusalem – this is why soldiers accompany them to Gethsemane when it comes time to arrest Jesus. By no means are they conducting their otherwise more violent expression of statecraft we call war. This is not a passage about war and battle, but diplomacy. They likely protected the tax collector from zealots, or enforced Rome’s legitimate claim to taxes (which Jesus similarly does not challenge decisively). The soldiers here are acting in something much more akin to a police role.
It should not surprise us, then, that God does not “bless the troops.” In fact Jesus doesn’t say much of anything. It is John who speaks. When he does, he tells them to not falsely accuse people or to assist the tax collector that they are assigned to guard in extorting money (which tax collectors were known for). After all, as representatives of Rome, they held all the cards, they could get away with murder. In fact, soldiers often did just that. The very fact that they asked suggests only two possibilities:
- They were taunting John, and his answer betrays their mockery with plain honesty (which makes them look like jerks, and this story warns us against being like them)
- They saw this indigenous, camel-suited fool as a legitimate authority and dispenser of wisdom (which doesn’t speak too highly of their armor-clad commander in chief…)
Finally, if you read the Gospels canonically, the answer from John the Baptizer might evoke particular stories from other Gospels, like the ending of the book of Matthew, namely chapter 28, vv.1-15. After Jesus is killed, the chief priests temporarily assign their Temple Guard to mortuary affairs to make sure Jesus stays dead. When he doesn’t, the Tomb Guards report the resurrection to the chief priests (v.11), who decide to bribe the soldiers in order to get them to falsify their report to Pilate (v.12) and thereby save their skins for apparently sleeping on the job. The soldiers “took the money and did as they were” told. (v.15, NRSV)
If the soldiers had been “content with [their] pay,” would they have taken the priests’ money to cover up their dereliction? John’s warning against bearing false witness might have something to say of lying to Pilate about disciples stealing Jesus’ body. Soldiers, it seems, would have every bit as much of a reason to accompany the tax collector to the waters of baptism, for it is there that one repents and turns away from their former lives.This may be the most honest interpretation, since verses 7 and 10 have John addressing “the crowds” (including tax collectors and soldiers) as “you brood of vipers!” The Baptizer has no reason to think that the soldiers are there for anything less than baptism; the time has come for metanoia, for a change of command in their hearts.