“What then did you go out to see?” Matthew 2:8
What did people expect from John the Baptist? What stories had they heard about him? What difference did they think he would make? How happy would they be with what they heard?
Three times Jesus asks those who went out to see John the Baptist what they went out to see. Jesus is anxious that John is not misunderstood; he is anxious that people appreciate the strength of John’s message. John the Baptist offers them neither compromise nor easiness.
In Saint Matthew Chapter 11 Verse 7, we are told, “Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?'” It would have been inviting for John the Baptist to have been like a reed that swayed with the wind, it would have been much easier for him to have gone with prevailing opinion. John the Baptist had become very popular, even Herod held him in high regard. John might easily have persuaded himself that it was important not to lose contact with so many people; he might have felt that moderating his teaching would enable him to influence an even larger number of people. John might have felt that he wasn’t being swayed, but was rather adapting his teaching in order to be better understood. John the Baptist is not a man given to compromise, though, he is not going to be shaken from his beliefs, he is going to hold very firmly to his principles. If people thought that John would show flexibility, they were mistaken; he was not like a reed shaken by the wind.
Are we like John the Baptist, or are we more like reeds, blowing this way and that according to the direction of the wind? The early Christians were brave in their stand for their faith, in the Acts of the Apostles they live a life of which John the Baptist would have approved. But as the centuries passed, the early Christians were forgotten and the church swayed so as not to cause offence. The church moves a long way from Jesus. When John was in prison he sent word by his disciples asking if Jesus was the Messiah or whether they should wait for someone else. In Saint Matthew Chapter 11 Verses 4-5 Jesus sends and answer, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is Jesus talking about his mission. but once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, Christian leaders adjusted church teaching in order not to offend the powerful. Are we like John, or are we like the reeds, swaying in the wind?
A second time, Jesus asks the crowd about John. In Verse 8, he says, “What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.” John could have chosen power by changing his opinions; John could have chosen wealth by making friends with the wealthy; instead John chooses the wilderness. The first Christians had no regard for wealth, their faith was all that mattered. Acts of the Apostles tells of them selling what they had and giving the money to the poor. But, just as the church accommodated itself to the powerful, becoming powerful itself, so it accommodated itself to the wealthy, becoming wealthy itself. We see the great medieval cathedrals and church buildings being constructed in times when many people lived in unimaginable poverty. We see church leaders having huge incomes and palaces of great grandeur. It is difficult to imagine John the Baptist not condemning the way the church changed.
Are we like John the Baptist, or would we prefer to be more like those who wore soft clothes and lived in royal palaces? It is said that the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet; that while we may be happy to make spiritual commitments, when it comes to wealth, our commitments are not made so willingly. We persuade ourselves that we can use our wealth in a positive way. John the Baptist turned his back on all material wealth, how willing are we to make material sacrifices? How willing are we to pass by the way of affluence in order to follow the way of Jesus?
A third time, Jesus asks the crowd about John. In Verses 9-11, he speaks to the crowd, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” John the Baptist may have chosen the way of power, but turned away from it. He may have chosen the way of wealth, but he turned away from it. Instead, he chooses the way of a prophet. It is a lonely life, it is a hard life, it is a life which brings no earthly reward. It is a life that brings only arrest, imprisonment, and a brutal death. John chooses the way of the prophet, even though he knew what way that life would lead.
Are we like John the Baptist? We are not. We do not choose ways that are difficult, ways that are challenging, ways that may make us unpopular, ways that might bring us trouble. Yet, if we believe in the kingdom of heaven, we should ask what that demands of us. Do we always take the easy way, or do we try, in our own ways, to be like the prophets?
Three questions: power, wealth, or prophet. Which choices do we make?