Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has removed the judgment against you
he has turned away your enemies;
the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst,
you have no further misfortune to fear.
On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty savior;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
he will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.
Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
There’s a reason why John the Baptizer’s demands in today’s gospel pericope are similar to the gospel Jesus’ demands. Though some Christians don’t like to admit it, the carpenter who lived and worked in Capernaum was originally one of John’s disciples. It seems this wilderness prophet first turned Jesus on to the faith he later publically proclaimed.
It’s quite probable Jesus originally seemed content just to be one of John’s disciples. Only after the Baptizer’s arrest – or martyrdom – did Jesus step forward and pick up the prophet’s mantle. No wonder he was so concerned with how we relate to others. He had a good teacher and mentor.
“Whoever has two cloaks,” John insists, “should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” True faith revolves not around worship and rubrics, but around how we give ourselves to others, especially those over whom we exercise power.
The historical John and Jesus were so similar in their messages that Jesus’ earliest disciples thought it necessary to frequently point out his superiority to the Baptizer, even employing the Baptizer himself to convey their message. “One mightier than I is coming,” the gospel John proclaims, “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” No matter how great John is, Jesus is always at least one degree better. “I am baptizing with water . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
As I mentioned above, some Christians are uncomfortable with this explanation. In their mind, the historical Jesus was independent from any outside influence. As God, Jesus accomplished everything on his own. Yet the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminded his community that Jesus was more than just God; he was also human. With that in mind, the Council of Chalcedon actually stated in 451 CE: “Jesus of Nazareth was a human being like all of us in everything except sin.” That means, if I can be influenced by others, so can Jesus. As unfamiliar as it might sound, we’re grateful John the Baptizer came into his life. John’s personality seems to have made a significant difference in Jesus’ personality.
I’ve often confessed that what originally attracted me to Scripture wasn’t Scripture but the people who taught me Scripture. I was impressed by the mentality they brought to religion and the attitude toward faith revealed through their teachings. Though I never thought, as a diocesan priest, I’d have an opportunity to study and teach Scripture, down deep I wanted to spend my ministry doing so. More than anything, I wanted my personality to be shaped by the same experiences that shaped the personalities of the people I admired. Thankfully, I was eventually given that opportunity.
There’s nothing more rewarding than proclaiming and agreeing with the joy Zephaniah found in experiencing Yahweh, or the happiness Paul discovered in following the risen Jesus. Yet if it hadn’t been for the Scripture scholars who came into my life years ago, I probably would never have gone that deep into my faith.
Considering Jesus spent at least three hours on the cross, I sometimes wonder what went through his mind during that time. Could he have spent some of those three hours thanking God for the people who came into his life? If he did, I’m certain John the Baptizer would have been near the top of his list. Though we Catholics often wax eloquent on the influence Jesus’ mother had on him, I presume she wasn’t alone. Jesus might not have been dying that Friday afternoon had it not been for the example the Baptizer provided for him. Things could have been quite different for him, as they’d also be for some of those we’ve influenced.