I guess the long walk and search to find John in the wilderness may have been a factor, but it is a little surprising that after the tongue lashing given to some who seemed very righteous that the crowds still listened to John. They must have sensed the Spirit of God on him and recognized great wisdom in the words he spoke. Imagine the panic of many when John said that even those with all the appearance of outward righteousness were simply a brood of vipers and a tree about to be chopped down by God!
Instead of revolting against John's teaching, the crowd asks what could be done to achieve righteousness. Not one to mince words, John responded with difficult tasks that still apply today. Although faith in Christ is the only thing that saves, there are specific challenges in this passage that lead us into righteousness and conform us into a closer mirror of the image of God.
“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” This one seems easily translatable to today's society, but it is far more difficult to carry out. The Greek for tunic is chiton, a long garment worn under the cloak next to the skin. But I don't think we can try to justify ourselves and give away all but one of our slips. If there are people to whom we can reach out that do not have clothes and we have overflowing closets, we are not righteous. At our house the worn out, outgrown, or out of style clothes are the ones sent to donation. That is cleaning the house, not righteousness. And how much food is in your pantry? Do you have food that goes bad and gets thrown out while people around the world and down the street go hungry? Then you are not truly righteous. James 2:14-16 says, What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? I am not saying we all need to be ascetic, but I am sure that most believers could improve in this area. The fact that we will not achieve perfect righteousness in this life does not absolve us of seeking to improve. You do not have to be rich to show fruits of repentance. Just have a little extra for today and give it away.
“Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” It is unlikely that anyone reading this is considered a national traitor working for an oppressive foreign government, but there is great spiritual truth in this verse. These Jewish tax collectors were known for charging more than the prescribed amount in order to pad their own pockets. Rather than ordering them to quit their evil jobs, John admonished them to live within their means. In our "but now, pay later", lottery playing, credit card happy world we rarely do this. Can you be happy living within your means, even carving into your income to sacrificially share with others, without looking for more monetary gain?
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” These may not have been true Romans but were probably Jews who signed up for or were conscripted by the Roman military service. Perhaps they were there to protect the tax collectors. They received small wages. Repentance for them meant being satisfied with this small paycheck rather than using their power and the threat of Rome to extort money from others. Perhaps you are in a position of authority over others; don't use your power for your own gain. And all of us are called to be satisfied with our jobs - not to complain about our work situation or be unsatisfied with our net income.
John's message still cuts to the heart of believers today, and we can all improve in righteousness in one or all of these areas.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ - Matthew 25:34-40