“Well, you know, Barbara, sitting here in this dark prison cell has given me a lot of time to think. You’re right in suggesting that. I always thought that Jesus and I were on the same track, but the longer I sit here and think about it, I can see how very different we are, and frankly, I’ve had to reevaluate my life and ministry.
The first thing that now occurs to me is how different our attitudes toward life have been. Some of that, I suppose, is due to the things we were exposed to while growing up. My birth name was John Ben Zechariah, but for the past year or so, people just refer to me as “the baptizer.” John Ben Zechariah means John, son of Zechariah, but now it’s like I’m not even that person anymore. My ministry has turned me into someone else.
How did I come to believe I had a mission from God? Well, growing up as I did in the hill country of Judea, I often made my way to the desert area around the Dead Sea. There were a number of small Essene communities dedicated to purity of life. My contacts with these people became more and more frequent, so that they came to have a substantial effect on my thinking. They taught me that life in the towns and cities was corrupt, so I learned to prefer the wilderness. They taught that good Jews must be scrupulous about keeping dietary laws, so I learned to eat the food of the desert – locust and wild honey – and to avoid any compromise in diet. They trained me to realize that if I was going to service God as his emissary, I would have to give up living the easy life. So I turned away from soft clothing and took to wearing camel skins. I felt in my heart that God wanted me to live a simple and austere life, and to focus on keeping the entire Law to the letter. My family questioned me sometimes, and I think there were times when even they thought I was some kind of fanatic.
How did that differ from the upbringing of my cousin, Jesus….? Well, for one thing, Jesus had a totally different set of experiences. He grew up in a town, and he accepted the fact that most people couldn’t just pull up stakes and move out to the desert. He lived like everyone else did: he dressed as they did, ate what they ate, drank what they drank.
The town in which he grew up, Nazareth, is in the area called Galilee, a kind of commercial crossroads, which was therefore influenced by a lot of other cultures because of the trading that took place there. We used to snicker and refer to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles” because so much happened there that was just so compromised from my perspective. Jesus himself became fairly lax: he didn’t always wash his hands before eating, he went to a lot parties and dinners with people who were known sinners, and it seemed to me that he was wrong in doing this. Why did I feel this way? Well, in my opinion, if one is to take religion seriously, then it is an all or nothing proposition. You either accept every last bit of it, or you reject the whole thing. I’m not an advocate of cafeteria style Judaism!
We also had different ways of dealing with people. When I was about twenty-eight years old I felt that God was calling me to do something really big for him. I left the desert and began preaching along the Jordan River. I felt that people needed to be confronted with their sinfulness so they would repent, but first I had to get their attention. How did I do that, you ask? Well, I wasn’t timid about calling them what they were: snakes and hypocrites! I let them know that God was on the march, that the present world order was going to be destroyed by the righteous anger of God. I pointed out ways in which they were breaking God’s laws and I told them to repent because God’s kingdom was at hand. People came out to the river by the hundreds to hear the message, to repent and turn their lives around. I told them to be baptized – that is, to wash themselves in the Jordan River as a sign that they really wanted to be cleansed from their unrighteousness. Large numbers of people followed my advice.
Yes, well, that is an interesting question, Barbara, and it was a day I’ll never forget. One day, Jesus just showed up in the crowd and asked me to baptize him. This was right before he started preaching openly. Of course we knew each other, since his mother and my mother are cousins, but aside from some family celebrations, we didn’t see each other that often. We certainly didn’t hang out together because we were so different.
As soon as I saw him, it was so weird, because something inside me said, “This is the one you have been proclaiming; this is the one who is going to deliver Israel.” I was shocked and confused by this thought because if he were the deliverer, I should be baptized by him. I suggested that, but he just told me to baptize him. There was something different about the way he looked at me when he came up out of the water, and a look on his face that said he had just resolved some big question or problem. The next thing he did was to go out and live in the desert for a while. I guess he was getting his thoughts together and planning his strategy. About forty days later he returned to where I was preaching and I caught a glimpse of him in the crowd.
I was anxious to see what he would do next. Israel needed a good house-cleaning, and if I had called people snakes to get their attention, he would no doubt be even more confrontational.
But that isn’t the way he went about it. Instead of judging people, he affirmed them. Instead of convicting them of their sins, he seemed to accept people with all their weaknesses. Instead of emphasizing the law that was being broken, he stressed the love of God. Instead of keeping himself free from sinners, he included a tax collector and a terrorist among his close associates. He allowed a woman of doubtful reputation to have a place in his entourage. He said that Zaccheus, a known collaborator with the Romans, had a place in God’s love. I did not understand anything he was doing.
Not long after Jesus began his public ministry I was arrested because I criticized Herod, the ruler of our province, for taking his brother’s wife. And I get lots of time to think. Was I wrong all this time? Is Jesus right about the way he’s doing things? I wake up in the middle of the night with those questions in my mind.
Fortunately, God has helped me to resolve my doubts about Jesus and about my own calling. Some originally thought I was the Messiah, or Elijah or another prophet, but I knew I was not any of those.
“Well, then, who are you?” they insisted. For the first time my role suddenly became clear to me. I was not destined to be the leader of some great movement; I was to serve as a proclaimer of someone else. So I answered them with words from the prophet Isaiah. I said, “I am the voice of one who shouts in the desert: ‘Make straight a path for the Lord to travel.'” (John 1:20-23) My own words remind me of my role. I am not the savior of the world. I am simply a voice called to give testimony to what God is doing in the world. I have to do it my way because of who I am. If I am too direct or if I offend some people, I am sorry for that. All I have wanted to do is to get people’s attention.
What do I see in the future?? I do not know if I will ever get out of this prison cell. I feel like there is still a lot I can do, but realistically, that may not happen. And that is okay, Barbara. I have done what I was called to do. I have been that voice calling people to prepare, to make a place for God in their lives. I may not always have fully understood what God was intending to do, but I have been faithful to the best of my understanding.
Any last words for the followers of Jesus?? Look, I think my ministry has a message for all of them. I was never one to call attention to myself, rather, I kept preaching and pointing toward someone yet to come. That day by the river when I saw Jesus among the crowds, I actually did point to him and shout, “There is the lamb of God.” (John 1:36) I felt bad afterwards because two of my followers left that same day to be with him instead of me. I felt hurt, but as I prayed about it, it became clear that Jesus was meant to increase while I was destined to decrease.
So, I don’t know about any last words, really, except to say that since he is the Messiah, maybe his followers need to step up and be a voice of testimony for him. Maybe every one of them should be pointing to the one they follow, the one who makes such a difference in their lives. I did it in my way, the only way I knew how. Maybe it’s time for them to do it their way, because you know, Barbara, in the end, God is going to make it all work out right.”