Voices in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:1-12)

Voices in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:1-12) November 28, 2016

By Shively Smith.


The impact of the #SayHerName Movement cannot be overstated. This is a campaign that gives voice to “black women’s experiences of profiling and policing,” setting the names and death-taking stories of women, like Sandra Bland and Meagan Hockaday, alongside the names and stories of black males like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The #SayHerName movement is a resource that makes the public aware of the trauma and loss of life experienced by black females in “civilized” society, who often go unnoticed in the media barrage of reports about police brutality of black males or crime incidents from historically black and/or low-income neighborhoods.

With its growing presence across social media and its knowledgeable activists, like Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the #SayHerName campaign is reminiscent of John the Baptist’s voice in the wilderness, in Matthew 3:1-12. Literarily speaking, the gospel of Matthew’s story about John the Baptist’s wilderness experience sits at the intersection between class, political power, cultural identities, social inequities, and religious belief and practice.

Here, John the Baptist, a Jew, “appears,” almost out of thin air in the wilderness of Judea as one with no material wealth and luxury to his name (Matt. 3:4). By all appearances, he is a “have not” with a public and prophetic message for his Jewish kindred representing a spectrum of social and political outlooks. John’s message is simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2). In Matthew 4:17, Jesus will issue the same appeal saying, “Repent” (cf. Matt. 11:20).

The gospel reports that John’s message reaches a broad audience, drawing people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, the region along the Jordan, and even “many Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 3:5,7). Yet, John is troubled by the popularity of his message among segments of the population.

He denounces the Pharisees and Sadducees who were willing to affirm his message by “coming for baptism.” The ease at which they accept his message and its moral underpinnings seems to exasperate John. From John’s vantage point (or more accurately stated, the gospel writer’s vantage point), the Pharisees and Sadducees do not have, to their credit, a record of moral actions reflecting their public confession, as symbolized in baptism (Matt. 16:6-12). In other words, John questions the integrity of their faith confession when he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:7b-8).

It’s important to remember that the Pharisees and Sadducees are not analogies for all of Judaism. In others, this is not a moment in which the Gospel of Matthew is pitting Christian and Jewish beliefs and identities against each other. In fact, every character in this story is Jewish! There is no anti-Semitism here.

Historically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees represent two rival Jewish power holders in the Second Temple period. The Pharisees were primarily a lay Jewish group of expert interpreters of the Law of Moses and the “tradition of the fathers.” Their chief sphere of influence was primarily in Jewish synagogues located across Palestine and among Jews dispersed across the Roman world. In contrast, the Sadducees were a priestly aristocracy and political group located primarily in Jerusalem and tied to Temple worship and politics.

While these two Jewish groups disagreed about theological issues (i.e., Temple relevance, resurrection, existence of angels, etc.), the New Testament characterized them as collaborators in overseeing the political and social well being of the Jewish people in the Roman world (Acts 5:34; 23:6). Given that they typically did not agree on theological matters, Matthew’s description of both Pharisees and Sadducees participating in baptism is surprising. John the Baptist is silent, however, about their uncommon agreement concerning ritual matters. Rather, he points out the contradiction between their theological assent and indifferent social and political actions.

Indeed, speech language and speech acts run like a unifying thread throughout this passage. In the story about John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness, the most common verb is the Greek word for “to speak” or “to say” (legō). It appears 6 times in 12 verses (Matt 3:2, 3, 7, 9). Although the Greek word for “to say” in Matthew 3:2 is not translated in some modern translations, like the NRSV and CEB, the word is present in Greek manuscripts and translated as “saying” in the NIV and NKJV.

The repeated occurrences of “to say” are only one indicator of the importance of radical, transformative speech that challenges leaders to change in practice, not just words. The story about the content of John the Baptist’s message contains other indicators such as language about “proclamation” (Matt. 3:1), the voice crying out (Matt. 3:3), and verbal confessions (Matt. 3:6). This story rings loudly as it follows retellings about Jesus’ ancestry (Matt. 1:1-17), birth (Matt. 1:18-25), visitations and celebrations (Matt. 2:1-12), fear and state-sponsored executions (Matt. 2:16-18), and resettlement and return (Matt. 2:13-15, 19-23). The first voice readers hear after the stories of Jesus’ beginnings is John the Baptist’s courageously prophetic address. John’s voice represents a standard of both spiritual and moral consciousness.

John’s proclamation combines spiritual transformation with a call for institutional reform and social change in an empire that resists it all (i.e., Matt. 26:15; 27:24-44; Acts 4:1-12; 6:8-15). In Matthew 3:1ff, the “wilderness” represents a place uncontrolled by the elite power holders. It symbolizes the place to which God delivered the people of Israel following their rescue from Egypt (Exodus 15:22-25; 16:3). The wilderness is also the location of both challenge and refreshment, as portrayed in Matthew 4 at Jesus’ temptation (Matt. 4:1-11).

Indeed, the prophetic social quality of John’s story is highlighted in his reinterpretation of Isaiah 40:3. The Isaiah passage confirms that John is levying God’s challenge, not his own. Isaiah 40 speaks of God’s actions to save Israel from their Pharaoh overlord in the Exodus and from their Babylonian overlord in the Exile. The Isaiah passage is not just referring to an immaterial and internal spiritual conversion, but is in fact speaking about God’s deliverance of an oppressed people from discriminatory power, oversight, and mistreatment.

What makes John’s speech so unforgettable and forceful? John’s address and actions model something for modern Christian readers of the gospel. The intersection between present and future is a tense and frustrating space to live within. Yet, that space makes a demand on us. Faithful moral identity that is not wedded to moral social action misses the Gospel’s kingdom vision. In Matthew, the politics and policies of God’s kingdom has a particular focus. It is attentive to the life struggles, circumstances, and traumas of “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), the persecuted righteous (Matt. 5:10), those of childlike innocence (Matt. 17:4), and sufferers of violence (Matt. 11:12).

The #SayHerName campaign is a modern John the Baptist voice in our midst. It casts a vision that names real bodies and real lives and puts out a courageous and prophetic call to action—a call for us to change. Such transformation involves more than mere calibrations in our personal attitudes and feelings. It is change that demands invisible bodies be made visible. It is a call to systemic, institutional overhauls, in which a society of neighbors hold accountable those neighbors who would target, harm, and exploit some among us.

The loss of life and distress inflicted on female bodies, brown bodies, immigrant bodies, children’s bodies, victims of sex trafficking, the wrongly incarcerated, and so forth represent a corrosion of the kingdom. John the Baptist indicts the leaders because they did the right thing ritually, but not socially. The modern day voices of John the Baptist contend with acts of erasure, maltreatment, and silence by “crying out” from the wasteland until people pay attention, go out, and do something to change their world. At the end of this gospel story, one point is clear—there is no room for silence in the vision of God’s kingdom on earth when bodies lay cold on the pavement.

Bible Study Questions:

  1. Whose stories and faces do you not see reported on the news and how can you begin to fill in those gaps?
  2. What are the “wilderness” spaces of your community that you are not accustomed to listening to, which are putting out calls for action, aid, and justice?

For Further Reading:


ShivelySmithReverend Doctor Shively T. J. Smith has been actively working in the arenas of ministry and academia for over 17 years. She is currently an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church where she is currently attending Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. 

Dr. Smith completed her Ph.D. in New Testament Studies at Emory University as the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in the New Testament Program. Her dissertation is called, “Live as Strangers in Your Own Land: The Letter of 1 Peter and Diaspora Discourse,” which is due for publication Fall 2016. Her work has been supported by organizations such as the Louisville Institute, the Ford Foundation, The Fund for Theological Education, the Mellon Mays Fellowship Program, Black Women in Church and Society Program, and the Social Science Research Council. Her research interests include: Studies on Peter and Peter’s Letters, Luke-Acts, Call Narratives, and biblical discourses on diaspora. 

She has contributed to multiple writing projects and series, including the Feasting on the Gospels series, the Reading & Writing Theologically series, the Human Rights Campaign Online Lectionary, the Church Health Reader Magazine, and others. Smith is currently working on academic projects related to her dissertation and research interests. Smith also does a lot of independent writing and blogging about graduate work, applying for scholarships and fellowships, studying the bible as well as offering independent bible study podcasts through her website: www.shivelysmith.com. She is a sought after preacher, teacher, and motivational speaker. Smith is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. 


About ON Scripture – The Bible and the ON Scripture Committee

Like ON Scripture on Facebook

Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture

ON Scripture – The Bible is made possible by generous grants

from the Lilly Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation


Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment