“What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind, a man dressed in fine clothes, a prophet?” Jesus asked those questions of the people who had gone to see John the Baptist. John had become someone of celebrity status, the ordinary people flocked to hear him, but so did the rich and the powerful. What was their motivation? What took them out to a barren, inhospitable place to hear the words of this radical preacher?
Some came looking for a spiritual renewal, some came because they were curious. Some, we know from John’s denunciation of them as a “brood of vipers” in Saint Luke Chapter 3, saw John as dangerous, a threat to the established order of things.
What people saw in John the Baptist depended on what it was that they wanted to see. They could have gone to that rough and wild place and seen an odd and eccentric man, a man dressed in a primitive way, hair and beard unkempt, skin weathered and cracked by the elements; a man whose diet was locusts and wild honey; a man who cared nothing for polite company or social etiquette. They could have gone to see John and returned to their homes with tales of a strange sight and wild words.
Jesus’ challenges his listeners to move beyond appearances, to look for deeper truths. To the authorities, John the Baptist became a rabble rouser, a troublemaker, someone whose removal would be convenient; they do not see beyond their perception of what suited themselves. It is those who could discern the deeper things who could see John John as he really was.
In the Twenty-First Century, most who saw John the Baptist would see nothing more than a bearded man dressed in rags. Image is everything; substance seems not to matter. There is a loss of sight of a need for depth, integrity, truthfulness. It is hard to imagine how the current news media would deal with John. It would have been a discomfiting experience for any news reporter who made the mistake of trying to misrepresent the words of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist would not have been a successful politician, either then or now. John’s unrelenting commitment to the truth, John’s pursuit of justice, John’s condemnation of corruption and wrongdoing, would have not endeared him to those accustomed to politics of duplicity and spin.
On Saint John the Baptist’s day, his approach would be a refreshing element in political life.