In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:1-12 – NRSV)
“In common with the other Evangelists, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ ministry was preceded by that of John the Baptist. To bring out John’s significance he cites Isaiah 40:3, but in a shorter form than does Luke, and he does not precede it with words from Malachi 3:1 as Mark does. He has quite a different approach from that of John, who simply gives us the testimony the Baptist bore to Jesus. For Matthew the important thing is that the Baptist came prophesying the doom that awaited sinners and calling on his hearers to repent.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 50-51.)
Interestingly enough, Josephus makes reference to John the Baptist, though giving him a slightly different purpose: “Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; (117) for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (118) Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. (119) Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him.” (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 18:116-119, trans W Whiston, The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged, Hendrickson, 1987)
the wilderness: The reference would remind all Matthew’s listeners of both the Exodus and the call for eschatological renewal: “The wilderness location of John’s activity is to be related to the biblical (Ez. 20:33–38; Ho. 2:14–23) and contemporary (CD 8:12–15; 1QS 9:20) tradition which located the beginning of eschatological renewal in the wilderness. Because the mention of the wilderness location is geared to evoking the tradition of wilderness renewal, the reader is given no help in imagining how John, at least in the early stages, could have gained any audience for his message in an unpopulated wilderness area. John is being thought of as a prophet, but where the prophets characteristically take their message from God to the people, here the people must trek out into the wilderness to receive the message. This is presumably because the commerce with God which John is calling for is deemed to have its natural setting in the wilderness (as the place to initiate eschatological renewal)” (John Nolland, Preface in The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 136-137.)
One scholar writes more generally of the wilderness/desert: “The memory of the desert was especially significant to the Israelites as a result of their Exodus experience. It was in the desert that Israel first met the Lord, and the tradition was forever set that it was in the desert that one might meet God.
“The desert was notable in the account of the patriarchs (Gen 12–50) and especially in the flight from Egypt and the journey in the wilderness (Exod 15:22, 16:1, 17:1, 18:5, 19:1–2; Num 14:33, 32:13). In the deserts Israel received the loving protection of the Lord, but the time in the desert was also a time of divine testing and discipline. The desert was therefore also a powerful reminder of the need for Israel to live in fidelity to its covenant promises and its love for the Lord (Hos 2:16; Acts 7:41; 1 Cor 10:5; Heb 3:8).
“The desert was a place of desolation and also of refuge (Gen 16:7; Exod 2:15–3:1; 1 Sam 23–26; 1 Kgs 19:1–4). It also figured in the New Testament. John the Baptist prepared for his own mission in the desert (Matt 3:1–12, 1:7–10; Mark 1:3–4; Luke 3:1–20; John 1:23). Jesus was also led by the Spirit into the desert to make his final preparation for his earthly ministry and to be tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13). Jesus also retreated to the desert for the peaceful solitude of meditation and prayer (Matt 14:13; Mark 6:30–32; Luke 4:42, 5:16; John 6:15).” (S Hahn, (Ed.), In Catholic Bible Dictionary, Doubleday, 2009, 213.)
proclaiming: The Greek verb is kēryssein (κηρύσσειν). “Despite the virtual absence of κῆρυξ (‘herald’) from the NT, it is likely that for at least some NT uses of κηρύσσειν (‘proclaim, preach’) the best sense is ‘proclaim, as [God’s] herald’. The content of v. 2 and the use of Is. 40:3 in v. 3 suggest that the present use may be a case in point.” (John Nolland, op cit, 136.) In other words, this is not a message that John has worked out. It is rather a message he has received and is passing on: “Preaching is a characteristic Christian activity (though, of course, not confined to Christians). The word properly means something like “make known by a herald” and indicates a message given by authority to the proclaimer, not a free composition of his own.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 51.)
repent: There are two Greek words used in the Christian Scriptures to describe the necessary conversion to which we are all called: metanoein – meaning inner change – and epistrephein – meaning external or behavioural change. The two concepts are clearly interdependent. The first is brought into focus here, the second remains implicit: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The same expression is used of Jesus: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: This is a powerful example of the constant reference in the Christian Scriptures to the Jewish Scriptures – the former is the fulfilment of the latter. “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’.” (Isaiah 40:3-5) Matthew, Mark and Luke all use part of this same prophecy and all use the Septuagint wording.
John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist: “Apart from the reference to luxury clothing made of soft camel hair in Apollonius Paradoxographus 20, I know of no ancient reference to camel hair clothing which is independent of this Gospel tradition. Rough cloth was usually made of goats’ hair and, apart from offering a cheap form of clothing, was used (as sackcloth) as a means for expressing mourning and penitence. We are to think of John as clad in only the most basic of attire. Contrast the ‘soft robes’ of Mt. 11:8. As the other elements of the description will indicate, here is a man who lives roughly, and perhaps for the most part self-sufficiently, in the wilderness. Loose garments were regularly held in place with a belt or a sash (fasteners, pins, and buttons were also used). ζώνην δερματίνην (lit. ‘skin girdle’) is best taken as a strip of hide used for this purpose. Nothing of the decorator’s art here! Is there a link between John’s garb and that of Elijah in 2 Ki. 1:8? Despite some recent denials there almost certainly is. Beyond the closeness of the descriptions, there is the fact that the desire to create an analogy to the ability to identify Elijah from his clothing indicated in 2 Ki. 1:8 makes the best sense of the inclusion of a description here of John’s clothing. John, it is suggested, is a figure who bears comparison with Elijah.” (John Nolland, op cit, 139.)
the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan: Matthew suggests a very significant response to John’s preaching. This seems to be confirmed in Jesus’ rejoinder to the religious authorities later: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matthew 21:23–27)
many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism: This is the first time the Pharisees and Sadducees are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. Given their opposing views on interpreting the Torah, they are an unlikely combination. Perhaps it is Matthew’s way of including all the religious authorities: “Matthew has the same unlikely combination of Pharisees and Sadducees in 16:1, 6, 11, 12, where they represent ‘an evil and adulterous generation’ against whose teaching Jesus warns his disciples. Though they are radically different in their views, Matthew can lump the Pharisees and Sadducees together because they shared a hostile stance towards the early Christian movement.” (John Nolland, op cit, 142.)
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’.” (Isaiah 52:7) One of the outstanding characteristics of Pope Francis is his presence – he is good news. Before he speaks his presence has spoken. And then, when he does speak, the world listens. How beautiful upon the mountains are his feet!
Pope Paul VI reminded us in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (#41)
One of the reasons truly human presence can be so effective is because it resonates with who and what we are and what we long for. Thomas Merton said it succinctly: “We exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany.” (Thomas Merton, “A Letter on the Contemplative Life” in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master – The Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence S Cunningham, Paulist Press, 1992, 425. Merton wrote this letter on August 21 1967.) When we are truly present and present truly, it is indeed a beautiful thing, a life-giving thing. Human presence, at its best, is God’s presence. I am reminded of the immortal line in the musical version of Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God!”
I suggest that John the Baptist’s huge impact on the people of Palestine was due more to his presence than anything he did or said. And I am not suggesting that what he said and did was unimportant. If he had been a fraud he obviously would not have had the same impact. There was no false self at work here. John was clearly a man who had lived into his true identity. He allowed himself to be stripped of any of the self-promoting, the pretences, the game-playing, the fears and the anxieties that give most of us a second-hand identity. That sort of “identity” makes us opaque and encumbers our words – even good words. We are then not free enough to be “His manifestation in the world, His epiphany” no matter what we say or do. Our presence is, well, sadly just our presence.
John the Baptist is a free and transparent human being, and therefore an effective bearer of good news. He is his message. He therefore cannot be ignored. John’s presence – and this is the point – bears witness to the Presence. This witness comes before and gives life to what he does and says. The people pay attention therefore.
Do you know anyone about whom you could say with some delight: “Before they speak their presence has spoken”?
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