A VOICE IN THE DESERT
In the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius’ reign, while Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, Herod, the viceroy of Galilee, his brother Philip, the viceroy of Iturrea and Trachonitis, and Lisanius, the viceroy of Abilene, under the administration of the high priests, Annas and Caiphas, God spoke to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert. John had spent many years in the monastery of the Dead Sea. When he felt that he was called by God, he left the monastery to preach along the banks of the river Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of conversion...
Baptist: The prophet Isaiah said it and I am repeating it! Make way for the Lord!.... The Liberator of Israel is coming soon!... Don’t you hear his footsteps?... Prepare the way, make his paths straight that he may come to us!
John’s voice echoed throughout Betabara and the neighboring city of Jericho, extending to Jerusalem and spreading like wildfire in the whole country of Israel. We were anxious to hear that voice proclaiming justice and freedom from the Roman yoke. All of us came from the north and south to see the prophet from the desert....
My brother James and I travelled from Capernaum. We came with our constant companions, brothers Peter and Andrew, who were also fishermen from the Lake of Tiberias. Like us, they supported the zealot movement....
James: He’s the man we need, Peter! Hell, this prophet minces no words and speaks out the truth as brutally as he can!
Peter: Then what are we waiting for, James? Call your brother and let’s go approach him. Come on, Andrew, let’s go and I don’t care if we have to elbow our way through, in order to get near him!
Long live the movement!
For seventy years, our country had been a colony of the Roman empire. Consequently, the people became desperate because there was hunger everywhere and they were made to pay taxes. That is why many of us sympathized with the zealot movement, as it aimed to overthrow the Romans. Besides, there were guerrillas scattered all over the country.
Peter: Long live the movement!
All: Long live the movement!
James: Death to the Romans!
All: Death to the Romans!
The zealots were well organized, especially in Galilee, our province. Peter and Andrew, my brother James and I formed a small support group in Capernaum. We talked to the people about the movement, and yes, we joined in every protest and rally in the place.
Well, some of the protests we initiated... I remember it was because of this that we decided to see the prophet, John. Then, having heard him speak, we realized that we were of the same cause...
Baptist: Those who are in power shout: “Peace, peace, let there be peace!” Tell me, how can there be peace without justice?... Can peace exist between the lion and the lamb, between the rich and the poor?... On the other hand, the people below shout: “Violence, violence!”... But they say it out of ambition, because they also desire to go up and commit abuses against those who are left behind. They are lions too, hiding under the skin of a lamb... Thus, the Lord says: “All must change their ways! Everyone must be converted!”....
The heat was exhausting. The mosquitoes were hovering like a cloud above our heads... People came from all walks of life — peasants, artisans from the towns, wool traders, tax collectors, beggars, the sick people, prostitutes and soldiers. Vendors too, were present, pushing their carts through the people, selling their wares of cookies and dried fruits...
Baptist: Repent, before it is too late!...Those who want to be free from the wrath of God, be baptized in this river as it cleanses the body and purifies the soul!... Do it now or the Fire will convert you into ashes!
Piles of sandals and sheets were seen on the gray sand along the riverbank. John, whose back was supported by a rock, the water reaching up to his waist, baptized the people, holding them by the head. He immersed them into the water until they almost drowned, then pulled them out toward the shore... There were hundreds of us who received this baptism of purification.
Peter: Andrew, did you notice how his eyes glow, like two burning coals?
Andrew: This prophet is the same Elijah who came down from heaven in his chariot of fire. He is Elijah in person!
Peter: This is the end of the world!
James: Out of my way, you dupes! Let me see the prophet!
The prophet was a big man, whose skin was burned by the desert sun. He was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a black belt around his waist. He had never had his hair cut which reached down to his waist. When the wind blew, his mane seemed that of a wild beast. It was the prophet Elijah talking through his mouth. Well, actually, John was not talking: he was bellowing, and his words bounced like stones hurled at our heads.
Baptist: Make way, make his paths straight, so that the Liberator will not delay! Fill up the holes that he may not stumble! Level the mountains if necessary, that he may not have to turn around and be delayed!.. No, he will not delay, for he is coming!.. Don’t you hear his footsteps?.. Don’t you feel his scent in the air? The Messiah is coming, the Liberator of Israel!
Peter: Pff!... All I can smell here is the stink of urine. I’m going to faint...
Andrew: You’re a pig, Peter! You shut up and listen to the prophet!
Peter: But it is true, Andrew. I don’t understand why I am here. People get immersed in the river and they do whatever underneath. They become even dirtier when they come out of it. And the prophet claims that the water cleanses and purifies! Pff!
James: You are right, Peter. The water seems like soup to me already, and the people’s heads are like chick peas...
Peter: Let’s go to the other side, fellows. I can’t stand all this filth....
Andrew: Now look who is talking... Peter, you are the one who stinks!..
Peter: Go to hell, Andrew! Better take back your words!...
John: Come on, that’s enough, Peter! Let’s get away from here, the heat is sickening!
We stayed away a little to be able to breathe some air. Peter was mad at Andrew, who was mad at me. James was angry at everyone. The four of us were good friends, in spite of the fact that we were always quarreling...
James: So, what do you think? On whose side is the prophet? You heard him say that all – those who are up and those who are down – must be converted.
John: That’s nothing but sweet talk, James. He should tell exactly who he is. Is he supporting the zealots or not? That is what he should tell us.
Peter: Very well said, John. Long live the movement!
Andrew: Shut up, will you, Peter? You are like a parrot!
Peter: The baptizer seemed to have dumbfounded you, Andrew.
Andrew: I am for the prophet. Whatever you say, whoever you support, I am for him.
John: But is he supporting the movement or not? This is what I want to know, Andrew.
Andrew: Why don’t you ask him, John. Go, immerse yourself into the water and ask him on whose side is he. You are his namesake, perhaps he will answer you.
John : Well, yes. I am not afraid of this prophet, nor of anyone. If he sides with the zealots, well and good, but if he is for the Romans, may he drown himself in this stinking river!
Andrew: Not so loud, John. It is not that easy.
James: Oh, yeah, it’s easy, Andrew. You just have to kick all the Romans in the ass. That’s all.
Peter: Anyone who hears you speak, James, will think that you are one of the seven leaders. Tell me, redhead, what have you done for the movement? Surely, you made noise in some four towns?
James: Likewise, what have you done, Peter? Hurl stones from the rooftop? Don’t you flaunt again how you spat at the Roman Captain, because here, even the children can spit on the soldiers!
Peter: You’re a braggart. I better shut you up...
John: Stop the argument, damn it!.. Now let us see who among us will dare ask John whose side he is on...
Peter: Why don’t we all go a little further away from here? I could smell the stench from here and it makes me dizzy. Come on, let’s go...
The four of us left and we ate some olives. We got a big surprise along the way...
Peter: Isn’t that big head coming over, our friend, Philip, the vendor? Philip!... Blazes! Now we’re headed for trouble!
Philip: Peter, Peter, the stone thrower!... How’s life treating you? Hey, James, the big mouth! And here is John, the troublemaker!...What are you up to, this time, sons of Zebedee?!... And look who’s here too, the skinny Andrew... I swear, I am so delighted to see you!
John: And so are we, Philip, the greatest chatterbox in the entire Galilee!
James: Hey, Philip, don’t be rude... Why don’t you introduce your pals?
Philip: Yeah, that’s right. Nat and Jesus, I want you to meet these four rascals. They are fishermen from Capernaum, while these two scoundrels are even worse than you! Nathanael is a true-blooded Israelite, who lives in Cana. He is a wool maker, and is more cunning than a fox. He’s got a wife who is unbelievably unbearable. The other fellow, this nice hick from Nazareth, is called Jesus. He can repair doors, just as he can make horseshoes. He is a jack-of-all-trades. Ah, and when he lends you money, he never charges interest...! The problem is he is always penniless and you end up lending him some money instead!
Peter: Well, it seems like we have known each other for a long time. But now, let us fill our stomach, as it is getting late!
All seven of us ate and had a chat amid the huge crowd. When night fell, we dispersed and headed for the riverbank. Every one gathered some dried twigs and started to build a bonfire. Some cut down palm leaves to make into tents so they would not sleep in the open air. The river Jordan was teeming with people who came in search of the prophet John, who in turn, continued to look for the Messiah, the Liberator whom he was proclaiming.
The entire gospel of Mark, as well as John’s, starts with accounts of Jesus’ life, as preached by John, the Baptist, along the banks of the river Jordan. This is one way of highlighting the link between the prophet’s message of justice and the Good News of Jesus.
The Baptist’s preachings, which are contained in the gospel accounts, are searing indictments of injustice and the corrupt situation in the country, starting with Herod himself, the king of Galilee, who was publicly criticized by John. On the other hand, John considered his mission as preparatory for the coming of the Messiah, who was to found a new world based on the equality of all people and the sovereignty of God.
In order to prepare this new world, notwithstanding his preachings and proclamations, John employed a ritual which became very popular: baptism. People came to listen to him and confess their sins. Afterwards, John submerged them into the waters of the river Jordan. It was a symbol of purgation. Water cleanses the unclean. It was likewise a symbol of rebirth, of starting all over again, leaving behind the ancient world of fatalism and injustice: From the water springs life, which begins in the water. The baptism of John was not a magic ritual. It was nothing without a real transformation in the attitude of those who were baptized. It was a mass baptism. The masses – particularly the poor Israelites – took to heart John’s message and got into the water in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
John preached and baptized in the desert, along the banks of the river Jordan, in a valley commonly called Beth-barah. This place is presently a border zone between Israel and Jordan. The Jordan (“that which descends”) is practically the only river that waters the land of Israel. It comes from the north, near Mount Hermon, and flows into the saline waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest place in the planet, a depth of about 400 meters below sea level.
John the Baptist’s simplicity, as reflected in his food and clothing, made him popular among the people who saw in this sun-burned and uncouth man, the prophet Elijah, who came back to defend his people. John’s long and dishevelled hair was typical of those who committed themselves to a total service to God: The Vow of the Nazirites, Jdg 13:5; 1 S 1:11.
For about seventy years, Palestine was a Roman colony. Rome was then the most powerful empire on earth, as the United States is today. Most of the nations during that period were under the Roman empire. For the occupied provinces, this meant occupation by foreign armies and exploitation of the people on whom heavy taxes were imposed, and who were denied participation in decision-making. Rome, the empire’s capital, was destroyed about five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. There was great discontent with the Roman domination in Galilee, as well as in Judea. The zealots were known to be one of the oppositionist groups. They were engaged in clandestine activities; some were into the guerrilla movement especially in the northern region of Galilee, where the movement was strongest. The zealots were nationalists, preaching about God as the only king. Furthermore, they were opposed to any foreign power, which was why they refused to pay taxes and to submit themselves to a census ordered by the empire. Weighed down by the burden of paying taxes, the peasants and the poor people of Israel sympathized with the movement and protected their members. Similarly, the zealots had their own agrarian reform program: They declared that property should be distributed equitably, as the social gap was extremely wide. Debts must be written off, in accordance with Mosaic law of the Year of Grace. The zealots’ group was said to have been founded by a certain Jude of Galilee, shortly after the birth of Jesus, when the people began to refuse to pay their taxes. The people’s rebellion was suppressed by the Romans at the cost of blood and fire. The word “zealot” comes from “zeal.” They were zealous of God’s honor, passionate and fanatic. The “sicarios” were an active group within the zealots’ movement. These were terrorists who always carried daggers (sicas) under their robe, which they used to murder the Romans.
It was probable that among Jesus’ disciples many belonged to the zealot movement. The gospel very clearly expresses this when referring to “Simon, the zealot” (Lk 6:15). Judas’ nickname implies his affiliation “sicaria.” On the other hand, the monicker given by Jesus to the brothers James and John, “boanerges” (sons of thunder), and that of Simon Peter, “barjona,” is attributed by some as referring to the zealots. The word may also refer to the theme of the zealots, and the struggle engaged in by the disciples.
(Mt 3:16; Mk 1:1-8; Lk 3:1-6)