[New to our exegesis of John’s Gospel? Try starting at The Beginning — see top menu for John 1:1-2].
24 Now they [priests and Levites] had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
24 Καὶ ἀπεσταλμένοι ἦσαν ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων. 25 καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ· Τί οὖν βαπτίζεις εἰ σὺ οὐκ εἶ ὁ χριστὸς οὐδὲ Ἠλίας οὐδὲ ὁ προφήτης; 26 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰωάννης λέγων· Ἐγὼ βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι· μέσος ὑμῶν ἕστηκεν ὃν ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε, 27 ὁ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἄξιος ἵνα λύσω αὐτοῦ τὸν ἱμάντα τοῦ ὑποδήματος. 28 ταῦτα ἐν Βηθανίᾳ ἐγένετο πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, ὅπου ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων.
Unfit to Untie!
The encounter of the deputation of religious leaders sent by the Pharisees in Jerusalem to question John the Baptist is fascinating. The task of this investigative group is to determine if John is with them or not. In the language of today, the Jerusalem Pharisees wanted to know, “Does John fit our culture and brand? Does he support our agenda? Is he on our side? Will he promote our mission? Or is he an Outsider who threatens what we’re trying to accomplish as Pharisees?”
Power is threatened by any who represent a challenge to it simply by being different. And John the Baptist was different in so many ways! Some we’ve already noted. But here we learn more. John’s was a baptism of repentance in anticipation of the Coming One. The confused investigators want to know, then, why he isn’t Elijah, the prophet (“like unto Moses,” a Messianic term), or Messiah himself? John is navigating a careful path. He does think of himself as a forerunner (the voice in the desert), but one who is the advance guard of another kind of Messiah as we noted last week. He even seems to know something they don’t know (v. 26). He has secret knowledge. This must have really irked those recording every word to dissect later with the Powerful Ones in Jerusalem.
If you’re an institution, how do you not be afraid and defensive of your power? By listening carefully to voices from below, or outside, or simply Other than you! Human beings, and their organizations, are so easily able to see the problems of everyone Outside of them but blind to their internal sins and errancies. Organizations that thrive tend to be those that are reformed for the better by voices that challenge them, not defend them.
But there’s more here. You gotta love John the Baptist. This bold innovator. This confident prophet, bullhorning a new message on the Edge of Nowhere, was also deeply aware of who and what he wasn’t: the Messiah. He didn’t let his popularity among the hoi polloi go to his head or wallet. He told those Jerusalem detectives: God is about to do something Big. Someone is on his way. And when That Person appears on the scene, I will not be worthy enough to stoop down and untie his shoes — a task slaves do. John was essentially putting himself below a slave, and that would be a new social category of humans — lower than a slave who was already at the bottom!
The gist here: be bold in speaking God’s word, your conscience, your thoughts that seem true to you; but in a spirit of humility and obedience to a Higher Power. John models for us an amazing combination of courage and humility.
Wow! I fall off one side or the other: speaking with arrogance, or not speaking at all! How do we find that John-the-Baptist-mode of speaking truth respectfully?