AN AXE IS LAID TO THE ROOTS
At that time, Joseph Caiphas was the high priest in Israel, the religious head of the country. Caiphas lived in a sumptuous palace in Jerusalem. Everybody hated him because we were aware of his dirty dealings and we knew that he was a pawn of the Romans who were then occupying our land....
A Priest: We are here to consult you about a matter of importance....
Caiphas: Yes, I know. It’s about the new taxes. That’s all right. I am giving my approval. After all, I am not the one to pay. On my behalf, please tell Governor Pilate to do everything he can to maintain peace and order in our country. Ah, and tell him too, that I have not forgotten his invitation; that I shall be at the Antonia Towers to savor that famous wine he ordered from Rome.
Another Priest: We will tell him, your Excellency, but we came here for another purpose....
Caiphas: Listen carefully. If you were sent by my Father-in-law to collect payment for the lambs on the feast of the Passover, tell him I can’t pay him even a single denarius. I incurred a lot of expenses in constructing my palace in the countryside. Besides, I see no reason why he is in such a hurry; after all, the whole family has benefitted from it.
Priest: We did not come to collect anything, your Excellency. It is about John, the son of Zechariah....
Caiphas: So, it was about something else....
Priest: By this time you must have heard about the disturbance caused by this fool along the River Jordan....
Caiphas: Unfortunately, I am well-informed about it...
Priest: People go in droves to listen to his ravings. They say he is a prophet of God. Others claim he is no other than the Messiah, the Liberator that our people have been waiting for....
Caiphas: What? This shaggy man is the Messiah...! or the Prophet!... A filthy, stinking man; that’s what he is, just like any gang of galley slaves.
Priest: You ought to do something, your Honor. It might spread like wildfire...
Caiphas: Well then, go see for yourselves. That’s right, you go to the Jordan, and find out what is behind all this. Ask this guy the reason for all the uproar and all these baptisms, and by what authority is he agitating the people. And tell him to be very careful with his actions. This is my warning to him....
The eyes of Caiphas, big and watchful as those of an owl, remained fixed on the wooden door of his palace as he watched the two priests leave. Then, slowly he sat down on the silk-covered armchair. In a few days, he would be receiving news about this prophet, a troublemaker and a rebel, giving him the high priest of Jerusalem a lot of problems....
Everyday, more and more people headed for the Jordan River to listen to John and be baptized. That morning, before the priests sent by Caiphas from Jerusalem arrived at the Jordan, there came to Betabara four Pharisees. These Pharisees thought of themselves as pure and holy, because they prayed three times a day in the temple, and fasted in accordance with Moses’ law. They despised us, but we simply laughed at them....
Pharisee: Deliver me, Lord from evil men, keep me from infidels, whose tongues are deceitful and whose hearts are sinful. Do not corrupt me like them, Oh Lord of Israel, nor stain my cloak with the impurities of these lawless men, who know not your commandments nor respect the sanctity of your temple. Deliver me, Oh Lord...
Four Pharisees, all wrapped in their black and white striped cloaks, made their way among the people. With their heads bowed down, they were praying ceaselessly. They did not want to stain their reputation by mingling with us....
James: And why are the Pharisees here? These wicked men can all go to hell!
Philip: Leave them alone, James, and let us see what they want.... Here, everyone is free....
James: They are here to spy on what the prophet John is saying... What a disgusting sight! They think they are saints!..
One Pharisee: John, son of Zechariah, we came all the way from Bethel in order to know you and to receive the baptism of purification...
Another Pharisee: We are followers of the Law, prophet John. We observe the Sabbath. We give alms in the temple, pray daily and fast.
Pharisee: We are obedient to God. What more do you ask of us?
Baptist: Nothing. It is the Lord who asks for justice.
Pharisee: Prophet John, you must know that we have always been just. Our hands are clean.
Pharisee: We too, want to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Baptist: Nobody ever prepares the way for the Liberator of Israel by proclaiming that he is clean. Your hands shall always remain clean due to constant washing, but not your hearts! For they are proud and pretentious! Hypocrites! You are no better than the peasants gathered here, nor the prostitutes weeping for their sins and asking forgiveness from the Lord!
Pharisee: With whom are you trying to liken us? We are Abraham’s sons!
Baptist: No! You are all sons of a viper. You are like serpents: hiding your venom in your belly!... Stop claiming that you are Abraham’s sons.... The sons of Abraham are just and do not dominate others. You blind Pharisees: cleanse your heart not your hands! Be upright with your work and don’t recite so many prayers! Heed me well, or else you will not escape the fire that is soon to come....
James: Very good, John! Be hard on them... This man calls them like he sees them! Damn these Pharisees! Why do they have to poke their noses into everything!
Philip: Listen, guys, I know of a Pharisee, the youngest of them, who is a very good man. He helps me and...
James: Come on, Philip, you don’t have to defend them now before these people!
Philip: But all I wanted to say was that the Jacobite...
James: Don’t push, you creep. There is room for everyone here!
A Priest: Give way, Galilean!
James: Hey, what brings you here, anyway?
Another Priest: Clear the way, for we have to go back to Jerusalem!
While John was denouncing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees on top of a rock, the priests sent by Caiphas arrived from Jerusalem. They were wearing yellow robes and they smelled like incense or sandalwood.
Baptist: God says he will catch all of you like fish in the river and no one will escape the day of Cholera!
Priest: John, son of Zechariah!.... Who gave you the authority to speak those things?
Priest: Who do you think you are, anyway?
Baptist: And who are you?
Priest: We were sent by Caiphas, the high priest from Jerusalem, and keeper of God’s laws, to ask you this question: By what authority do you speak in this manner? Who do you think you are? Why don’t you speak up? Eh?... You have caused a stir among these people with your cries, and now you are speechless.
Priest: What do you think of yourself?... The Liberator of Israel?
Baptist: I am not the Liberator of Israel.
Priest: Then, who gave you the permission to be talking to these people about the fire of God that will come down to purify them? Do you think you are the prophet Elijah who seared the earth with his burning words?
Baptist: I am not Elijah! He was the greatest of the prophets! I am not he! I only announce and make way for the one who is to come.
Priest: And how do you make way for him? By baptizing these wretched ones and feeding them with stories?... And who are you to baptize them? We are already purified as it is written in the Law, whose custodian is the high priest. Who are you to introduce a new way of life? Are you like Moses who can introduce new laws to these people?
Baptist: I am not Moses!
Priest: What are we to tell Caiphas, the high priest? In whose name shall we tell him, are you doing this?
Baptist: Tell this to Caiphas: “In whose name are you doing what you are actually doing? In the name of God you stain your hands in the dirty business of your father-in-law, Annas! And in God’s name, you sit at the same table with the oppressive Romans!”
Priest: Shut up! You are offending the high priest! You are insulting God!
Baptist: No, it is the high priest who has offended the Lord with his crimes and other acts of injustice! I am not going to shut up! I cannot be silenced! I am the voice that cries in the desert: Make the path straight for the Lord! Go tell Caiphas that his throne is wobbling. A Galilean who was with you yesterday already said it: It is not the branch that is rotten, but the trunk, and therefore, the entire tree. And when the tree is rotten, you have to uproot it.... Look at what I have in my hand...
Philip: It’s a cane. I see it from here!
Baptist: You may be seeing a cane, but look at it very well!... It is the axe of the Messiah! Look very well and tell Caiphas what you have seen. The Lord laid an axe in my hands and I must put it in the hands of the one who is to come after me. I only lay the axe to the root of the tree, so that he who is to come after me shall finish the job. When he comes, he will raise the axe and with only one thrust, cut the rotten tree. The day of the Lord’s fury has come! The axe is ready and sharpened! It is just awaiting the one who is to come. He will not delay, for he is already in our midst... Where are you, Messiah?.... Where do you hide, Oh Liberator of Israel?... My hand gets weary holding the axe... Let me know if you are not coming, so that I can give the first blow.... Come, Liberator, and make haste!... Let the earth be opened and spring forth the Liberator! Let the heavens break loose and may we be showered with the salvation of the Lord!
A few days later, the priests returned to Jerusalem....
A Priest: Your reverend highness, dear Caiphas,... that man is a crazy fool!
Caiphas: If he is a furious madman, then he is not dangerous. His madness will pass.
Another Priest: He goes down the river surrounded by all this crowd, shouting and screaming. In his hand is a cane which he claims to be the axe of the Messiah, for cutting the rotten roots of the tree....
Caiphas: I’d rather cut his long hair with that!
Priest: And not only that; he is also an agitator. He has spoken very harshly against your Excellency.
Caiphas: Really? What did he say about me?
Priest: That the throne of your Excellency is about to fall, for the day of the Lord’s fury is near. He says he is the voice that cries in the wilderness.
Caiphas: Let him scream as much as he wants. Agitators don’t last in this country... Leave him alone in his preaching. John has very little time left...
John wasted no time baptizing the people who went to the River Jordan. More than anyone, he knew fully well that his days were numbered. He was in great haste, but feared no one. He had the inner strength of the prophets, from Elijah, the greatest of all, to Zechariah, who was killed before the altar, inside the temple.
John the Baptist’s activity bothered the political as well as religious authorities, who were all fearful of any popular movement. That is why the central authority, represented by the high priest, Caiphas, sent an investigating commission to Jordan.
The high priest was the greatest religious authority of Israel. From the temple of Jerusalem, he controlled the whole theocratic system through which the religious and political questions passed. On him depended the temple personnel, composed primarily of priests and Levites.
Annas was the high priest then, a few years after the birth of Jesus. The man, of the powerful priestly family of Bete (Beto), was very influential, politically and economically. He was succeeded in his post as high priest by his five sons, and finally, by his son-in-law, Joseph Caiphas, who sentenced Jesus to death. If at one historical time, the high priests represented the religious sentiments of the people, in the years narrated to us by the gospel, this institution was a totally corrupt one. The high priest was no less than a collaborator of Roman imperialism, the major symbol of a religious system that was oppressive to the people through their laws, and through a policy of fear. The high priest likewise enjoyed great economic benefits from this post. John the Baptist, possessing an authentic, courageous and truly religious character, made everyone tremble within the whole system.
To any institution – be it religious, political or cultural – the voice of the prophets is always a threat. A prophet is born outside the institution, or, precisely by being so, situates himself or herself along its borderline. The institution represents the law, the norm, security and power. The prophet, on the other hand, personifies risk, audacity, freedom and imagination. Through all times, the conflict between the institution and the prophet has always existed, even in the church.
A group of Pharisees also approached John. In the gospel narrations, they are always presented as the most determined enemies of Jesus. The word “pharisee” means “separated.” The Pharisees were not priests. They constituted a lay movement led by the learned and the scribes. Their religious practice centered on the strict observance of the Law and, therefore, they despised the people and “isolated” themselves from those who did not share nor observe the same scruples.
This mentality of the Pharisees still persists in people who think of God as a “banker,” who takes into account our good and bad deeds, whom we can “buy” through meritorious works (sacrifices, promises, vows...). It is present especially among individuals who consider themselves the best and look down on others. One of the greatest changes in the message of Jesus is to proclaim that the self-righteous shall be the last, and that the last, the “sinners” (prostitutes, drunkards, cheaters) shall be the first before God.
John explains to the investigating commission the coming of the Day of the Lord. God’s Fury, his Wrath, is a biblical issue taken up by the majority of the prophets. It is not the sort of anger which is capricious, nor arbitrary. Neither is it a form of God’s passionate revenge against those who have offended Him “personally.” The Fury that the prophets speak of, refers particularly to the Day when God exhausts his patience before the oppressors and intervenes, with all His power, in favor of the oppressed. One must not think, however, that the God of the Old Testament was a vindictive God, surpassed by the God of Jesus, all loving and merciful. The texts of the New Testament, as found in the gospels as well as in other books, have adopted the theme of Wrath (Rom 2:5-8; Rev 6:12-17), just as the ancient prophets likewise spoke of the endless mercy of God (Ex 34:6-7; Is 49:13-16).
(Mt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-20; Jn 1:19-28)