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Deceptively Simple, Deeply Subversive:
John the Baptist, Politics and Religion

For Sunday July 12, 2009

Lectionary Readings

(Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19 or Amos 7:7–15

Psalm 24 or Psalm 85:1–13

Ephesians 1:3–14

Mark 6:14–29

           For about a thousand years, from Moses to Malachi, God spoke to his people by sending them prophets. After Malachi there was a 450-year prophetic silence, a silence that was finally broken with the first prophet of the New Testament period, John the Baptist. The Gospels record at least three distinct references to John the Baptist as the “forerunner” who was prophesied in Malachi 3:1–4 to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 1:17 = Malachi 4:6; Matthew 17:12–13 = Mark 9:11–13; and John 1:21). 

           Luke pinpoints the time and place when "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah." The "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" dates his story to about the year 26 AD. Luke also provides some additional political and religious commentary. He says that the word of God came to John the Baptist "when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene." After naming Rome's political powers both great and small, Luke then identifies Jerusalem's religious establishment; the story takes place "during the high priesthood of Annas and [his successor] Caiaphas."

Domenico Veneziano, John the Baptist casts off his clothes for life in the desert, c. 1445.
Domenico Veneziano, John the Baptist casts off
his clothes for life in the desert, c. 1445.

           These incidental details hint at a major theme in the story of Jesus.  The “word of the Lord" through John the Baptist did not come from Rome's imperial government or from Israel's religious establishment in the temple. It did not come from someone dressed in fashionable clothes who lived in an expensive palace, said Jesus (Luke 7:25). Nor from a business board room, university laboratory, ski lodge or power lunch.

           God's word to all humanity came from a wild and wooly man who lived in the deep of the desert, on the fringes of society rather than in its corridors of power, at the periphery rather than at the epicenter. The divine messenger and his message originated in an unlikely place and from an improbable source.  John would have been easy to ignore if you expected or wanted something normal, safe, or traditional.  Neither John nor his message was normal by any stretch of the imagination.

           Some scholars think that John was part of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of Essenes who opposed the temple in Jerusalem. At least this much is clear — John the Baptizer was a prophet of radical dissent; his detractors said that he had a demon (Luke 7:33).  In the end, he paid the ultimate price for faithfulness to his prophetic calling.

           Whereas John's father had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. There he dressed in animal skins, ate insects and wild honey, and preached. Living on the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).

Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John, 1608.
Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John, 1608.

           Marcus Borg describes John’s message as one of both “indictment and invitation.” Contrary to what we might have expected from such an ascetic man with an austere message, the Gospels say that people flocked to John: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Mark 1:5).  Even in far away Ephesus people submitted to the baptism of John (Acts 19:3).

           People needed to repent, said John, because with Jesus “the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2).  This is the exact same message that Jesus preached when he began his own public ministry:  “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 4:17).  It’s also the exact same message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 10:7).  In Jesus, God's reign and rule has arrived.

           Jesus's enemies rightly concluded that if Jesus was a king, a Lord, and a ruler who reigned over a realm, then he clearly usurped and upstaged the government in Rome and the temple in Jerusalem. The new kingdom in Jesus clashed with the old powers of politics and religion.

           The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not (Borg, Crossan). Imagine if God ruled the nations, and not Obama, Kim Jong-il, Mugabe, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being. 

           Entrance into this kingdom requires a counter-cultural choice. John the Baptist, Jesus, and his first followers invite each one of us today: repent, confess, and believe that in Jesus God’s kingdom has arrived.  That's the narrow way to the good news.

           John urged his listeners to prove their spiritual intentions by concrete deeds rather than by claims of religious or political affiliation. Some among the crowds took John at his word, but neither the political powers in Rome nor the religious establishment in the temple did.  To their credit, they understood that his message was not only deceptively simple; it was deeply subversive.

           About six months after John emerged from the desert like some scraggly lunatic and baptized Jesus, he was beheaded at the whim of Herod the tetrarch.  At a dinner party one night, Herod capitulated to the sadistic demand of his girlfriend's daughter. John was a forerunner of Jesus, but he was also a forth-teller to Herod, having rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother's wife (Mark 6:14–29). But as with many perverse politicians, Herod had his way with him who had spoken truth to power, so John was murdered.

           As for the religious establishment, Jesus tells us that "the Pharisees and experts in the law" spurned John's call to baptismal repentance, and in so doing "rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30). The prophetic word of God from John the Baptist, then, did not originate with the state powers or the religious establishment, nor did it find a receptive audience with them.

Wood Sculpture of John The Baptist’s Head by Santiago Martinez Delgado, 1942.
Wood Sculpture of John The Baptist’s Head
by Santiago Martinez Delgado, 1942.

           The claim of God’s kingdom upon my life, John preached, is ultimate.  That means that the claims of the state and religious establishments, of race, gender, culture, and money are, at best, penultimate.  The earliest and most radical Christian confession was simple: “Jesus is Lord.”  By direct implication, Caesar is not lord or god, and neither are all the other many false gods of religion, money, sex, power, etc.

           With his pronouncement and then martyrdom, John counsels us to turn away from anything and everything that might hinder ultimate allegiance to Jesus. He invites us to make our crooked ways straight, to flatten all hilly terrain, and to prepare space for the birth of the Messiah into our own lives.  When we do that, we'll find ourselves in the truly Good News that subverts and transcends all politics and religion.

For further reflection

Compare a similar clash between the prophet Amos, the priest Amaziah, and the king Jereboam, in the alternate reading from Amos 7:7–15. I call my essay on the Amos 7 text "The Prophet Amos to the Priest Amaziah: Stop Pimping Religion for Political Empire."


Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)