By Marion C. Moeser
This December, two Sunday gospel readings from Matthew are about John the Baptist.
Who was John and what do we know of John and his interactions with Jesus?
An important source about John, outside of the New Testament, is the Jewish historian Josephus (36/37-100 AD). He wrote to justify the Jewish people and their religion for the Romans. In his Antiquities of the Jews, he recounts that many Jews attributed Herod Agrippa’s defeat by the Nabateans in 37 AD as a punishment for having executed John the Baptist. Josephus describes John as a good man who “urged the Jews to practice virtue and justice toward one another and piety toward God, doing so to come together in baptism.” Josephus reports that because John was a powerful speaker and drew large crowds, Herod was concerned about a revolt and decided to execute him.
In the New Testament, John is present in all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. I restrict this writing to the two Advent gospel readings from Matthew. In the first, 3:1-12, John is preaching near the Jordan river that God will soon intervene to establish his rule (kingdom of God, of heaven). To prepare, men and women should place themselves in right – relationship to God and show this by their actions. For those who pledged to live such righteousness, John offers a water baptism. He confronts the hypocrisy of some Pharisees and Sadducees and stresses bearing “good fruit.” He says that the one coming after him is “stronger,” will baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire,” and act as a judge. John’s garb and message reminded the Jews of the prophecy that Elijah would return and prepare for the Messiah (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). The rest of Matthew chapter 3 that is not part of Sunday’s reading, tells us that Jesus came to John and was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” It is possible that early on Jesus followed John and saw him as a model.
The second Advent reading from Matthew, 11:2-11, finds John in prison and sending his disciples to ask if Jesus is the promised one. This could be because Jesus’ ministry included exorcisms, healings, nature miracles and raising the dead — beyond what John expected of a fearsome judge. Jesus sends back a message citing Isaiah’s words about the coming Messiah — words describing what Jesus is doing. Addressing the crowds, Jesus praises John: “there is no one born of women greater than John the Baptist.” John is a prophet and is in prison. Jesus knows the fate of many of the prophets of old. The verses in chapter 11 speak of such violence. Thus, Jesus’ words clearly present John as a hero.
Why this Advent emphasis on John? Is it only John’s prediction of the coming one? Is it that John’s message is meant for us also? In the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas, shouldn’t we also prepare for the “promised one” by examining if we are in right relationship with God and whether we demonstrate this inner righteousness by our actions?