Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist
and a shepherd’s cave such as John may have used
As a member of the Jewish Levitical priesthood, this famous cousin of Jesus could have taken a conventional role in civic life and the institutional expression of the faith. He chose not to. John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth chose the hill country of Judea for their home. John then took a step further away from metropolitan life, moving into the desert to a life of prophetic simplicity.
John’s life of reclusion did not remain a life of solitude, being added to by believers who made the journey to camp with him and learn from his teaching. His preaching attracted crowds, some (like Herod) drawn by curiosity, others (like apostles Andrew and John) by a hunger for something they had not found in the mainstream. Some remained in the desert and lived for a season with John, evidently forming a desert community. It was from among this community of brothers in the faith that John provided Jesus with his first disciples.
John’s teaching addressed questions of godly integrity in the regular activities of life and work. In the Gospels we hear snapshots of John’s conversations with public servants, soldiers, working people and civic leaders. The most significant demographic among his early followers were tax collectors – not the most popular of people in the context of foreign domination. John taught people to fulfil their civic duties and to give their surplus to those in need. He was dismissive and deeply critical of the rich and powerful elite of his day, famously calling the religious leaders a “brood of vipers”.
Personal conversion of life was the focus of John’s ministry. He invited people to engage intentionally with that call and turn afresh to God. He called people to mark this pledge through baptism in water in anticipation of the realities of new life in God’s Spirit – soon to be inaugurated by Jesus.
“Turn away from your sins and be baptised…
Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Every tree
that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown
in the fire…Get the road ready for the Lord.”
John’s radical simplicity of life, his claim to prophet-hood (asserted famously through his form of dress) his distance from societal norms and his voluntary poverty, along with his identification with Jesus, have made John the Baptist a source of inspiration and courage to Christian, ascetics, monastics, prophets and pioneers from the very beginning until today.