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Wildly obedient – The brilliant paradox of John the Baptist


Tod Worner - published on 12/19/17

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground…We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

– G.K. Chesterton

He was a wild man.

At least, that’s what the authorities said.

Scraggly matted hair covered his leathery, sun-worn scalp. His garbs were fashioned out of camel’s hair and his feet brutally calloused from a life spent barefoot on rocks and hot sand. His refuge was found in the flowing river current and under the cool outcropping of a craggy rock. And his eyes. Not wild, but far away. He seemed to live now by seeing eternity.

And he drove the authorities crazy.

He shook his staff and altered the cadence of his voice. Soft, then insistent. Coaxing, then condemning.

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

Wild man!, they uttered.

Who are you? They asked. Tell us! They demanded. Are you the Messiah? Elijah? The Prophet? We must know!

Feral! Uncontrollable! Uncivilized!

He challenged the crowd, the soldiers, the priests and even King Herod.

Disobedient! Dangerous!

But here’s the thing.

John the Baptist seemed wild. But he wasn’t. In a society that had lost its way, John was a compass pointing to True North. All that he said was in deference to God and the coming Christ. Give to others. Don’t cheat. Ask God for forgiveness. Quit grumbling. Be grateful. Be humble. I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ While the grotesque that John played shocked, his message transformed. It is a point of great paradox that this wildest of men was in fact the most obedient. He liberated with divine rules. He offered a reliable map to the ignorant lost. The untethered wild man yelled to a self-satisfied civilization not, “Follow your dreams!”, but “Obey your God!” Slavery, he seemed to say, is to degrade ourselves as we  pursue sin as virtue instead of finding liberating bliss as children of God.

Obedience, shouted the Baptist, will make you free!

Imagine that paradox…

Now that is wild.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio)

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