John the Baptist appears in the gospels as one of those existential purists who gives himself to few causes, but with all-consuming energy. Fearless before the people who trek to the Jordan to hear his fiery rants, he is equally fearless before a profligate pseudo-king. John cannot be bought. John gives the lie to cynical refrain that ‘every man has his price’. Perhaps most do, perhaps nearly all. Not John.
Yet even this passionate martyr-in-the-making must be conceded a space for his doubts. Imprisoned, John wonders not so much about the veracity of his own calling as about his quick identification of Jesus as the one whose emergence on the scene would signal the successful performance of the Baptist’s task.
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’
John had correctly perceived that YHWH’s next move would prioritize the needy beyond all conventional proportion. He had discovered an antecedent, even in his mind a prediction, of his fiery calling in the vocabulary of the book called Isaiah. That prophetic vision had manifestly anticipated YHWH’s healing presence and both his announcement and enactment of transformative good news for those with empty hands and grumbling bellies.
The gospels tell us that John had seen in Jesus the object of his anticipation. ‘Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’, John cries out in the Gospel of John as Jesus approaches, the Baptist’s feet wet in the Jordan’s flow, words of denunciation and summons to repentance still in the air. He had promised that ‘after me comes someone who surpasses me, or he was before me’ and then pointed to Jesus as ‘that man about whom I said these things’.
Even understatement acknowledges that John the Baptist’s expectations of Jesus were high.
Two factors might have caused the man to become unsure of himself. First, he himself languishes in Herod’s prison. One might have anticipated that the Lamb of God’s herald would be offered a nobler status. Second, Jesus’ modus operandi might have seemed a bit feeble alongside John’s white-hot expectation of a turning of tables.
John does not, it appears, go back on his preparatory message. He simply wonders whether he picked his man in a light-headed moment.
Jesus is not scandalized by the Baptist’s doubts. He merely, through the agency of those whom John had sent to him, reminds the prisoner of the essential fact. YHWH is healing. YHWH is restoring faculties of perception to those who had been lectured to make their peace with their loss and get on with it. YHWH is curing the scourge of uncleanness to those whose sick skin keeps them far from temple and community. YHWH is gifting mobility to the pathetically dependent. YHWH is restoring life to things too dead for hope. YHWH is removing the ‘dead end’ sign from the life of the poor.
Isaiah still, John is gently reminded, makes for an appropriate reference point. Though Jesus’ ways are unceasingly surprising, they align with that great prophetic hope.
Stay alive, John. Hold on to hope. Ennoble your suffering with the certainty that the facts, if judged by what is essential to Jesus’ way, bear you out.
John’s passion, it turns out, was intelligent after all.