"Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Matthew 11:3
John just wanted Israel to be great again. The country had been under foreign rule and domination for centuries. He, with all of Israel, hoped for God’s Messiah, a king, one who would re-establish the idealized Israel of old.
People who live so long under oppression and abuse develop survival mechanism. The Pharisees and Sadducees, for example, had become quietists. Their philosophy was that one should simply keep their own, personal, moral house spotless and stay out of politics. When the new came they believed they would be rewarded for their piety and obedience to God’s law. Both John and Jesus were especially hard on these folks.
At the other end of the political spectrum were the Herodians. They were also Jews, but they were accommodationalists. You did what you had to do to get along with the people in power. You need somebody to collect taxes? Sure. I need a job! You do what you have to do and suffer the social consequences. And suffer they did. People as a whole could not tolerate the realities the Herodians represented.
Zealots aren’t named as such in the New Testament, but you can tell they’re present. The Zealots leaned towards violence and anger. Someone had to take action. A Molotov cocktail here, a midnight raid on a Roman garrison there. Sooner or later those damn Romans would get the message. I suspect a lot of people secretly rooted the Zealots on.
And then not named or obvious, but known to history, are the Essenes. These folks were escapists. They pulled up stakes, ran to the desert, and lived in such a way that said, ‘This can’t get any worse. The Messiah just has to come soon. We’ll give up everything and just wait for kingdom here.’ All I can say about them is “I get it.” I’ve certainly felt that way myself sometimes.
John came out of the desert. He may have spent time with Essenes. We don’t know. What we know, though, is that as he re-engaged society he saw all of the above and found it wanting. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near!” Jesus was one who answered that call. Through his baptism Jesus made a choice to turn way from the false patterns and practices of violence and despair and turn towards the new day God had promised. He, John believed, was the One!
It is now months, maybe a couple years, later. John is in prison. The movement is not going well nothing has changed. Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Israel has not become great again.
Or has it? Or is it? "Go and tell John what you hear and see.” says Jesus. “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.”
“Great” means healing, respect, justice, care, compassion and concern. “Great” means labels are banished, walls of division are torn down, and dead places become full of life.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were wrong. Personal piety is never enough. We must engage, publicly like Jesus did.
The Herodians were wrong. What you do, what you refuse to do, matters. Personal integrity makes a difference. We have to walk our talk.
The Zealots were wrong. Violence is never the way.
The Essenes were wrong. You can’t run and hide.
The Church must be visible, active, open, listening, caring, receptive, feeding, healing and bringing life to any and all corners of creation marked by death, poverty and abuse.
Go and tell John this.
Bp. Dave Brauer-Rieke
Oregon Synod - ELCA