* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

John the Baptist: Developing Eyes Willing to See Human Worth and Voices Willing to Speak Truth

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest collection of Jesus stories that made it into the Bible. In fact, other gospel writers quote directly from Mark. The Gospel of Mark doesn't begin the stories about Jesus with a census and a manger and a band of shepherds shirking their duties at the behest of a supernatural choir. Mary and Joseph are not even mentioned. Instead, this short collection of Jesus tales begins with the character of John the Baptist, herald of the messiah figure. Instead of legitimizing Jesus as divine by a special birth story, the Gospel of Mark illustrates the divine nature of Jesus by a holy proclamation when Jesus is baptized, an event which initiates the public ministry of Jesus in all of the gospels. This was quite possibly an earlier origin story about the Christ figure than the familiar Christmas tale, which may have developed as the Jesus mythology matured in the first century.

John the Baptist sets an interesting stage for Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, he serves as a prophetic herald, baptizing people for "repentance" and the "forgiveness of sins." In other words, when people felt shame about some way that they had not lived up to their expectations of themselves, and they wished to refocus and strive to come closer to their ideal of themselves, John ceremonially gave them permission to set aside their feelings of shame and boldly move forward in their lives. He foretells the coming of a messiah figure, and when Jesus is baptized, God identifies Jesus as that messiah figure. Later gospel writers expanded on the character of John the Baptist.

The Gospel of Matthew includes a rebuke of the prominent religious authorities of the day, and John recognizes the special nature of Jesus when he approaches for baptism. Jesus tells John that his baptism is a matter of propriety, since presumably he had never missed the mark in his first three decades, being the son of God and all.

The Gospel of Luke begins with a legendary birth story for John the Baptist, and when the time comes for Jesus and John to meet as adults, John has already been preaching the same kinds of messages that Jesus will carry on after John's death: lessons like people who have more should share with people who have less, and extortion and lying are bad. Luke also includes a little more information about John's arrest by Herod, since John spoke up about some of the dictator's illegal and unsavory behavior.

The Gospel of John (named pseudonymously for a different John) is a bit more blatantly metaphysical than the "synoptic" gospels, but John the Baptist still figures prominently early in the story. In this telling of the story, John recognizes Jesus because of divine revelation, and Jesus is once again legitimized as a uniquely qualified spiritual leader.

None of these stories is particularly useful as mere historical data; there is nothing more verifiable in these tales than there is about any other mythological origin story. What is important, however, is the message behind John the Baptist's character. The Christ figure did not choose to begin his teaching within the organized Jewish religion, but rather began his public ministry outside the organized political and religious systems of the day. John the Baptist was apparently ministering primarily to people disenfranchised from established power structures. When the religious authority figures came to investigate, he chastised them for their pride and their "viperous" natures. The character of Jesus was not spiritually astute because of intense religious study or the ability to follow or understand Jewish dogma and rules; his credentials came from a deeper authority.

When the gospel writers use the character of John the Baptist to say something about Jesus, they have an obvious message to convey. Jesus serves as an idealized persona, fully in touch with his divine nature while walking around in a human body in a human world. Perhaps what John the Baptist saw was only partially correct however. Perhaps if he had been willing to look for it, John would have seen a deeper spiritual self within every person, ignored or undeveloped maybe, or covered over with lies and beliefs that were initially very well-intentioned. Perhaps if we look around intentionally, we will see something more than John saw in the multitude of people around him.

John the Baptist didn't really need to tell people not to take more money than they ought from people, or to share what they had with people who had less. We already know right from wrong. We know when we are acting out of selfishness (fear of losing what we have) or greed (fear of not having enough). And yet John got thrown in prison for saying out loud things that everyone already knew. This is, in part, because we get rather defensive when we do things out of fear. Sometimes we would rather be defiantly out of alignment with our truest, most noble selves than be told that we are wrong. We would rather lie to ourselves than honestly face our fears, even when we know at our core that we are way off base. This is one of the reasons we need one another.

We need other people to honestly remind us of the things we don't want to hear. We need other people who care when we go off the rails, who are willing to speak up when they see us careening out of control because of our irrational fears or our false beliefs. Even when we are just slightly out of alignment with the people we most want to be, an honest and loving word from someone can remind us of the things that matter most in our lives. Speaking the truth to someone is not always easy, especially when we have such a tendency to get mad when someone tells us something we don't particularly like. The character of John the Baptist gives us a model in this regard.

Without getting caught up in the intent of the gospel writers to legitimize the hero of their story as uniquely divine, there are a few things that we might glean from John the Baptist. First and foremost, we might strive to more gracefully correct our course when we recognize that we are out of alignment with the selves we most want to be. This requires being honest about our deepest selves as well as being honest about where we are potentially falling short. We might also strive to appreciate the people in our lives who are honest and caring enough to remind us who we are, to see our most noble selves in spite of our fearfulness. We can be those honest and caring people as well, willing to speak out in truth and love so that another individual might recognize that they are not entirely living as the person they want to be.

In one sense, we are all John the Baptists, surrounded by John the Baptists: people capable of seeing the intrinsic value of every person, and people capable of speaking the truth without judgment, so that together we might sharpen one another, strengthen one another, and create the kind of world we most want to live in. In our own ways, we can give people opportunities to set aside shame and irrational fear and move forward in their lives with hope and dignity. We don't need to herald a superhuman messiah who will come to save us from ourselves, we can simply proclaim one another as capable, worthy, beautiful.

This is the good news: Truth, beauty, and creativity are within you and always have been. You have value and worth because you are, and you need no further credential than that.

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