Today we celebrate the memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist. The Church recognizes him as a martyr, killed because he stood up for the sanctity of marriage against divorce.
Jesus honored his prophetic cousin by stating that “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). When Jesus asked His Apostles “who do people say that I am”—a question posed ahead of the critically important Petrine confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-30), among their answers was “some say John the Baptist.”
Given that John the Baptist had already been beheaded—and his killer, Herod Antipas, was a superstitious man whose reaction to news about Jesus was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” (Mark 6:16)—one can clearly see the profound impression Zechariah’s son made. Indeed, he was often compared to Elijah, Israel’s first and greatest prophet, who was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11-12) and who, according to contemporary Jewish messianic expectation, was expected to return to usher in the Messiah.
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But was John the Baptist a “welcoming” sort of guy?
Given that he called a group of Pharisees who came to him at the Ford of Bethabara on the Jordan a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7), I’d say not.
Since “welcoming” seems to be a contemporary obsession of some ecclesiastics, and the Second Vatican Council instructed us to better ground our theology in Sacred Scripture, perhaps we might profit from examining John the Baptist’s approach to “welcoming.”
The Gospels introduce us to John appearing on the Jordan “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). The first word out of his mouth (which happens, later, to be repeated verbatim by Jesus) is “Repent!” (Matthew 3:2).
Later, John hands out practical counsel to those who respond to that call (Luke 3:10-14). Repentance for the better off meant sharing one’s goods. For tax collectors, it meant not cheating on assessments. For soldiers, it meant not bullying others or grumbling about wages.
Note, however, the order in which John “welcomed” the crowds who came to him. He didn’t start with “assessing their life experience.” He held no “dialogue” about contemporary tax extortion—er, collection—methods nor a “listening session” with those soldiers tired of being kicked by those they were crucifying before they could drive stakes through their feet.
He knew what his message was, and he laid it out, take it or leave it. One might note that Mark prefaces that message as “the beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah” (Mark 1:1).
John starts with a call to repentance. “Repent!” is the translation of Μετανοεῖτε, which literally means “to change one’s mind” or “to change one’s way of thinking.” John is clear: repentance starts with rethinking how you understand the meaning and purpose of life. How you understand it, not how his message does. You, not the Good News, need to change. The Good News measures you. You don’t measure its message.
Nor did John think that message was inapplicable to sex.
While John spoke of what we might call “social ethics” today—proper treatment of taxpayers, civilians, or the poor—he also weighed in on sexual ethics. Indeed, he “spoke truth to power.” He called the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, an adulterer and his wife an adulteress.
By today’s standards, one might say John lost his head. John made clear that the Old Testament Law regarded Herod’s “marriage” to Herodias as incestuous adultery and demanded a higher standard from someone claiming to rule over God’s people, Israel.
Did John perhaps speak to Herod before his public preaching? That’s unknown. But, in his life of Christ, the Polish author Roman Brandstaetter (a Jew who became a Catholic during World War II and was thoroughly steeped in Judaic tradition from his rabbinical grandfather) presents John as an object of Herod’s fascination, so he doesn’t rule out such prior exchanges. But it’s kind of like the sinner who hangs around church but doesn’t want to take that last step to repentance.
John does not backtrack on his message. He doesn’t “pastorally adapt” Leviticus 20:21. He doesn’t rationalize that Herod is in an “impossible situation” and that putting away Herodias might prove publicly difficult for him. He “rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done” (Luke 3:19). It got him in jail and, eventually, killed. John does not backtrack on his message. He doesn’t “pastorally adapt” Leviticus 20:21. He doesn’t rationalize that Herod is in an “impossible situation” and that putting away Herodias might prove publicly difficult for him.Tweet This
In the run-up to this fall’s “Synod on Synodality,” expect a lot of talk about the Church’s need to “welcome.” In his Angelus message on Trinity Sunday, Pope Francis set up a false dichotomy, a conflation that has plagued the entire pre-Synodal “dialogue process.” He questioned:
Do we keep the door open always, do we know how to welcome everyone—and I emphasize, everyone—to welcome them as brothers and sisters? Do we offer everyone the food of God’s forgiveness and Gospel joy? Does one breathe the air of home, or do we resemble more closely an office or a reserved place where only the elect can enter?
John was very welcoming of those who received the call to “think differently about life.” But he also made clear to the Pharisees (right after calling them a “brood of vipers”) that they first needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8) and that it was its absence that elicited his excoriation. He also made clear that the claim, “We have Abraham as our father” (Luke 3:8) didn’t cut it, any more than the claim that being baptized somehow provides the Spirit’s corrective insight into the rightness of what the Church has for centuries consistently and definitively taught is wrong.
We can certainly “welcome” everyone and “offer [them] the food of God’s forgiveness and Gospel joy.” But that offer entails what the Gospel itself demands—not acquiescence in the status quo and baggage they want to continue carrying. The “air of home” is where one is taken in…but also where (and perhaps the only place) one is told the truth.
As we advance to this fall’s Synod, I’m taking John the Baptist as my model of welcome.