When Christians talk about soldiering, one passage that comes up often is from Jesus’ baptism by John at the River Jordan. “Jesus didn’t condemn the soldiers, and therefore he doesn’t condemn soldiering per se” the line goes. 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. 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 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: Either they were a) taunting John, and his answer betrays their mockery with honesty, or they b) 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, namely the ending of the book of Matthew. After Jesus is killed, the chief priests temporarily assign their Temple Guard to mortuary affairs; you know, to make sure Jesus stays dead. When he doesn’t, the Tomb Guards report the resurrection to the chief priests, who tell them to falsify their report to Pilate and thereby save their skins for apparently sleeping on the job. The soldiers took the money and did as they were told.
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. The Baptizer has no reason to think that they are there for anything less; the time has come for metanoia, for a change of command in their hearts.