As we continue our second reading for Advent this year, John appears in the wilderness. This narrative element clues us in to the fact that John will be working outside the establishment. He will be calling for change (repentance) from the edges and undersides of his society, outside of the official channels. Social salvation is not coming from the established center, but from the margins.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Commenting on this imagery and its possible application to our lives today, Ched Myers writes:
“The experience of wilderness is common to the vast majority of people in the world. Their reality is at the margins of almost everything that is defined by the modern Western world as ‘the good life.’ This wilderness has not been created by accident. It is the result of a system stacked against many people and their communities, whose lives and resources are exploited to benefit a very small minority at the centers of power and privilege. It is created by lifestyles that deplete and pollute natural resources. It is created by the forced labor of impoverished farmers who strip steep mountain-sides in order to eke out an existence from infertile terrain while the most arable land produces profit for a few families. Wilderness is the residue of war and greed and injustice . . . One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . . While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Orbis Books, p. 11-23)
Luke’s gospel makes this point about John the Baptist even more forcefully by showing that John’s father was part of the temple establishment (see Luke 1:9-10). Luke’s implication is that John the Baptist came from the center of society, and chose to reject that social location with all of its privileges to work for change from the outside.
Very rarely has social change ever come from the center or top of a social structure. Advent, remember is about arrival. Social change has most often come from the margins, from the outside in, and from the grassroots, from the bottom up. In the beginning of Mark, this truth is being told again.
John’s preaching centered on a specific place in the wilderness, the River Jordan. The Jordan provided water that was moving: flowing, “living water” for what grew to be the central ritual associated with John’s preaching, baptism by immersion in “living water.” Historical Jesus scholars today understand John’s baptism to be economic and political as well as religious. All of three categories combined in John’s preaching and baptism, calling the people to return to fidelity to the God of the Torah, especially in regards to the Torah’s economic justice teachings. Again this point would be forcibly made in Luke’s gospel as well. As we continue this week’s Advent reading, we’ll take a brief look that, next.
(Read Part 3)