Gaudete Sunday: The Preaching of St. John the Baptist

John was a prophet not because he spoke, but because God spoke through him.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Preaching of St. John,” 1566
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Preaching of St. John,” 1566 (photo: Public Domain)

Last week and this week, the Gospel has us make the acquaintance of John the Baptist. Last week, we were introduced to his mission in the Jordan Valley at a particular given moment to baptize as a sign of repentance. This week, we learn something of his preaching.

As noted last week, the message of the prophets’ tended to focus on two themes: fidelity to the true worship of God against idolatry and justice towards one’s neighbor. Remember that it’s not strictly the “prophet’s message.” A prophet is a prophet not because he speaks (remember that Jeremiah, like Moses, tried to beg off the prophetic vocation by not knowing how to speak — Jeremiah 1:6; Exodus 4:10 — and Amos insisted he was just “tending the flocks” and a “dresser of vines” — Amos 7:14-15) but because God speaks through him. His message is not his word but God’s Word. Indeed, that was the clear mark differentiating true from false prophets.

John’s message is simple. Asked what they should “do,” the “crowds” learn they should share food and clothing with the needy. Presumably, they were in some way faithful Jews, so John reminds them what James will make clear in the future: faith without deeds is dead (James 2:14-16, where he warns us against facile wishes of “be warm and filled”). Both Judaism and Christianity (prior to its Protestant deviation) recognized good works were essential witnesses to faith. “Even tax collectors” — public sinners of their day — ask what to do. They are told not to engage in corruption, graft and extortion. (Tax collectors in Israel often added their own personal levies to the sum they were expected to hand over to Rome.) Soldiers are told to be honest and not grumble about their pay.

The second half of the Gospel is where John distinguishes himself from Jesus. He is and knows himself to be a herald of the Messiah, not the Messiah himself. He points to the one greater than he. He acknowledges his baptism is a symbol of repentance, but that the “one mightier than I” will act with real power, the power of the Holy Spirit (often symbolized by fire). 

John calls for repentance; the Messiah will judge the response. “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his barn but burn the chaff in unquenchable fire” (v. 17). A winnowing fan or fork was a device, usually wooden, that farmers used to throw wheat into the air. The heavier, solid wheat, remained; the waste, relatively lighter, was blown away in the action of shaking and throwing. In the future, Matthew will recount Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat and the great separation that comes at harvest time (Matthew 13:24-29, 37-43). John anticipates it. Indeed, Sunday’s reading concludes by saying John “preached the good news to the people” (v. 18b). Indeed, it is the beginning of the “good news,” the Gospel. Jesus will launch his own ministry with the same call: “Repent and believe the Gospel! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mark 1:15).

[What Sunday’s Gospel omits is v. 19, where Luke tells us about someone who didn’t repent (Herod) and his response to John’s call (“he locked up John in prison”). The call to repentance is not “take it or leave it,” either on the part of God or of the unrepentant sinner].

Today’s artwork illustrating the Gospel comes from Pieter Bruegel the Elder and dates from 1566, three years before the artist died. It hangs in Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts.

True to John’s desire to “decrease,” it takes a bit of a search to find his brown-clad figure in this painting. He stands slightly above the crowd, his arms animated about what he is saying. The very populous crowd presses in on him from all sides, most listening in rapt attention. They’ve even climbed the trees (like poor Zacchaeus will in the future to get a good sight of Jesus — Luke 19:4) to see John. Three staring outward — the man by the tree and the person in a tree, both on the left, and the man seemly crouching almost dead center — help draw the viewer into the painting. To John’s left, between the trees and off to the horizon, flows the River Jordan.

Dressing people anachronistically in the clothing of the Renaissance rather than their own time was typical for painting of that period, and clearly most of the people in this painting look like Europeans, not first century Jews. Another characteristic typical for Bruegel the Elder is the inclusion of common people: most of his paintings have mobs of peasants and common folk, usually in village-like settings. (Think “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.”) Indeed, John’s audience is remarkably diverse — in addition to Europeans, we also see Arab and Oriental figures in the crowd. And while this is clearly not a village, but it is far more Flemish than Judean landscape. 

Of course, we know from Jesus preaching and miracles that crowds would listen but not necessarily follow if “the teaching is hard” (John 6:60). To repent is a hard teaching, because our wounded nature would rather not, in John’s day or ours. So, how is our own Advent repentance going in these last two weeks of the season? Am I hearing the Baptist, or do I want to walk away?