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Saint of the Day: St. Wenceslaus
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John the Baptist vs. Jesus on the Kingdom coming


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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 12/10/17

John ate locusts and no bread. Jesus blessed bread for all.

When John, called the baptizer, started preaching, people were ready for a drum-thumping old time prophet.

John was that, because that’s what the time required. All of Palestine was in turmoil and people were fearful, anxious, disoriented. Everything they believed in seemed to be falling apart at the seams.

Israel had been occupied for most of century by this time. Pharisees tried to practice a non-political piety. The Zealots ached for revolutionary violence. The Sadducees controlled the Temple and ran the money tables. The Essene monks (and maybe John the Baptist was one of them?) simply said a pox on everyone, we’ll stay in the desert; the Temple, they said, was defiled by greed and politics. Herodians collaborated with the occupiers, and with Herod, the puppet king.

So when John started whipping up the crowds, sloshing knee deep through the Jordanian waters while stirring up broods of vipers, he delivered a simple message with great energy. He simply announced the way things were in ways everyone could understand.

Straighten up and straighten out, is how he put it. The Lord’s Day coming soon, John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was the kind of message people expected to hear, given the times. The world was about to turn.

But how was the kingdom coming? Ah, now, there’s a rub. What God did in Christ isn’t what John anticipated, I don’t think.

John saw the Day of the Lord as something to dread, God putting an axe to the root. No careful pruning here, but cut out completely and tossed away. But Isaiah declared, it is Jesse’s root in which the Gentiles shall find hope.

John lamented. Jesus rejoiced. John, Jesus once said, sang a funeral dirge; Jesus led the alleluias. John ate locusts and no bread. Jesus blessed bread for all.

John would not drink wine. Jesus made an estimated 380 gallons of it for a wedding and, after drinking it, Jesus, his mother, and his disciples went to Capernaum where, some translations put it, they “rested” for three days. (Jn 2:12)

John came neither eating nor drinking, and was said to have a demon. Jesus came both eating and drinking, and was called a glutton and a drunkard.

John warned everyone; Jesus invited everyone. John dressed in scratchy camel skins; Jesus had a fine cloak with no seam, so fine his executioners declined to tear it and gambled for it whole.

John said God was like a crazed forest ranger chopping dead trees; Jesus said God was a patient cultivator who could wait an entire year for a single fig.

John said God was wrath, anger, vengeance. Jesus said God was like a fussy little old widow seeking a misplaced coin, and overjoyed to find it.

John said God could walk off and leave you. Jesus said God was like a waiting father, pacing anxiously until his child returned.

Toward the end of his life, John the Baptizer did an odd thing. From Herod’s prison he sent a message to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one, or must we await another?”

Jesus did not give a straight answer. He did not say, yep, I’m the guy. Instead, Jesus quoted another prophet, Micah: “Go and tell John: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, and good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:1-18)

And then he added, more or less in these words: “And three cheers, John, for anybody who can swallow this without choking.”

Of John, Jesus declared, there was no greater man born of woman, while enigmatically adding, yet even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.

John preached what everybody expected, because the times were so bad.

But because the times were so bad Jesus preached what nobody expected, but since it was exactly what we needed, the world did turn.

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