Mark’s gospel opens with an account of an unusual scene unfolding in the Judean wilderness near Dead Sea east of Jerusalem.
A somewhat oddly dressed prophet by the name of John who made wilderness his home was calling upon strangers from all over Judea to repent and be baptized.
Mark describes John’s lifestyle explicitly and offers some interesting details. John’s dietary habits—locusts and honey—likely point to his membership in one of the Qumran communities and his clothing has intertextual allusions to prophet Elijah in 2 Kings. His lifestyle was consistent with someone living in the wilderness and, more importantly within that historical context, was characterized by poverty, likely voluntary poverty.
In a culture where poverty was a source of profound embarrassment and shame, John appears to be embracing it as a marker of his identity and wearing it proudly on his sleeve. But John’s lifestyle—clothing and food habits—was not simply indicative of his location and identity but should be seen in the context of the nature of his mission.
Mark suggest that John was preaching a baptism of repentance and that the residents of Judean countryside and Jerusalem went to him. Mark’s point appears to be that the message of repentance was aimed at residents of Judea, especially of Jerusalem, who enjoyed fairly comfortable living standards and were residing in an island of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty in regions such as Galilee. They were also known for their proximity to centers of power and pursuit of wealth. Surprisingly, many were responding positively to John’s invitation.
What did it likely mean for Judeans to repent and be baptized in the wilderness? The Greek word metanoia which is often translated as repentance is the combination of two words—meta and noos—that together describe a process of stepping out of one’s existing mindset and
adopting a characteristically different mindset. Metanoia has the connotation of having one’s perception of the world and of oneself transformed, adopting a radically different worldview and relating to the world in new ways.
Metanoia can also mean making a U turn and changing course. Within this literary context in Mark, the term pertains to one’s ethos and is about turning his or her back on existing socio-economic structures. Furthermore, in the context of extreme poverty and growing gap between the poor and the rich, repentance required not accepting the status quo as normal or as the only possible reality. It entailed course correction, envisioning an alternative reality and endeavoring to bring it to fruition. Seen in this light, those from Judea who came to be baptized by John had to reflect on their own complicity in the existing socio-economic structures, evaluate their values and lifestyles and radically alter their commitments.
Their current lifestyle characterized by wealth was achieved at a great cost—poverty for many—and is unsustainable. For that to change and made sustainable, existing political and economic structures needed to be transformed. Accordingly, John is inviting people to embrace new mindset and envision the possibility of a different reality. Such a task was a lot harder than the temporary excursion into the wilderness the Jerusalem elite might have been initially prepared for.
Mark’s hyperbole that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” went to John is intriguing. It seems to suggest that, in the face of extreme of poverty, repentance is not merely individual and that changing existing structures requires corporate and national repentance.
The text is deeply intertextual. In Jewish history, wilderness is a moment of reflection, transition and reckoning with the divine. As many scholars have noted, John’s role as the one who prepares the way of the Lord” harkens back to Exodus 23:20-22 where the prophet does the difficult but necessary job of seeking course correction and brining wayward people back to the desired path. John is preparing the way of the Lord primarily by returning people to the path. The story looks back to history but it also seeks to move the community forward.
John is inviting people into the wilderness to reflect on their history and their ethos as people but the wilderness is more a metaphor rather than a literal space. It is a moment of reckoning and moral transformation that will lead the people to participate in the way of the Lord. The way to the new kingdom being inaugurated by Jesus is through the wilderness.
John’s call for repentance has urgent relevance for the current American context where many pursue a lifestyle of abundance with little consideration for the cost of such a lifestyle to tens of millions living in a sea of poverty. In recent years, the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing rapidly and exponentially. In Great Divergence: America’s Growing Income Inequality and What We Can Do About It, Timothy Noah observes that the top one percent took home nine percent of all personal income in 1979. By 2013, when the book was published, they were garnering 25 percent of all personal income in America. That percentage continues to grow at an alarming rate. Within this context, repentance requires the elite to be self-critical of their culture of consumption that is unsustainable in the long run. It also calls for national reckoning on the issue of poverty, repentance and swift course correction.
Mark’s point about the elite from Judea and Jerusalem going to the wilderness to be baptized and have their mindset transformed is significant especially because cities such as Jerusalem were deemed culturally and morally superior to the wilderness. From a Roman perspective, while cities were seats of civilization, wilderness was a place of barbarism and chaos. Yet, in Mark’s account, the roles are reversed. It is the wilderness that positively influences and shapes the ethos of the elite. John is inviting the elite to reevaluate their ethos and make a U turn with regard to their commitments and practices. This is such a radical ask, one that has deep relevance for the Church that wields power and influence in the United States.
John passes the torch to Jesus who builds upon it and carries on his legacy. In turn, Jesus recruits disciples to carry out his mission. Jesus’s promise of making his disciples fishers of people has the connotation of challenging those in power with the goal of disrupting and dismantling unjust economic and power structures. This is a recurrent theme in the gospel and is captured powerfully by modern day movements such as the Moral Mondays initiative led by Rev. William Barber. But as the text points out, structural change requires corporate repentance and national reckoning. It is time for Americans to head to the metaphorical wilderness for a moment of reflection of our values, transformation of our mindset and course correction.
Heavenly God, when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, you claimed him as your son. Claim us as your children, inheritors of your glorious kingdom. Amen.
Cold December flies way ELW 299, UMH 223 Lord Christ, when first you came to earth ELW 727, H82 598
Nunc dimittis, Robert Scholz