John the Baptist

Here is John the Baptist in wilderness of the Jordan Valley as he preaches and baptizes pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. He’s someone we learn from in Advent. Son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John is six months older than Jesus, as Luke reckons it in his gospel. We wonder how close they were as children growing up.

John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry, but then they seem to part ways. Even as they do, John offers Jesus two of his own disciples, Peter and Andrew.  Their only contact afterwards, however, seems to be through messengers.

Both preach a message of repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 3.2; 4,17). Both call for people to change, but Jesus’ message contains a surprising mercy not found in John’s preaching:

“When John speaks of the One who is to come, he is thinking of an executor of divine judgment, not so much of him through whom God’s mercy and love are made visible. He expects the kingdom of God to arrive in a storm of violence, in the immediate future, with the Messiah’s first appearance… From what we know of his preaching, he seems transfixed by the vision of the judgment and finds nothing to say about the salvation the Messiah will bring.” ( Rudolf Schnackenberg Christian Existence in the New Testament, Volume 1, University of Notre Dame 1968, p 39)

“The ax is ready to cut down the tree that bears no fruit,” John says. Repentance dominates his message. But I wonder if Schnackenberg’s appraisal of John misses the comfort he brings. He’s a follower of the Prophet Isaiah. I think of John as a drill sergeant readying troops for the coming battle. He’s a preacher of tough love to pilgrims who must climb the holy way that leads to Jerusalem.

Road to Jerusalem, Air view, 1932

Jesus urges repentance too, but with a tenderness and compassion not found in John. “Go tell John what you hear and see…” he says to messengers John sends.  The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the dead are raised. 

Jesus reveals God’s mercy, not only in through his many miracles, but also in his teaching. Think of the stories of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the thief on the Cross– signs of God’s mercy, God’s patient mercy.

You must take a desert road, John says in his preaching. You must take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, but again, the way’s not hard–his yoke is easy, his burden light. 

Jesus doesn’t dismiss John. There’s none born of woman greater that he, Jesus says. John has integrity, he’s not swayed by what other people think or say, not swayed by public opinion or the fear of failure, or sickness, or deprivation. He’s not swayed by winds good or bad. His face is turned to God, his ears hear God’s word, his voice speaks what he hears.

Jesus Blessing John, Moretto Da Brescia, VAMuseum


1 thought on “John the Baptist

  1. Harry Warren

    This is a. Beautiful reflection on John. I love the ‘drill Sargent t preparing the troops for battle’ analogy. Thanks Fr. Victor


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