It’s cold. It’s dark. I haven’t seen sunlight in a month. Or moon or starlight for that matter. I can’t tell time except for the one meal that tells me it must be daylight. When Herod comes to ask me questions, I figure it must be night because he has slipped away from Herodias, who hates any nod toward me.
Welcome to the dungeon at Machaerus. Yes, it’s miserable here. But I’ve never appreciated the gift of time as much as I do now. It has given me the chance to ponder—and there is much that I need to ponder. I left my village in the hill country outside of Jerusalem in order to answer God’s call in the desert. But now, I’m wrestling with that same God and that same calling. Not about being in prison. No, I’m wondering if I have got my mission right.
All these years, I have been studying the prophets and crying out, telling the people that the Messiah is coming. I pleaded with them to repent or risk being burned by the fire of God’s judgment. But my disciples have brought word that the ministry of my kinsman Jesus doesn’t seem to match what I’ve been saying. Is he the Anointed One of God? If so, what is the kingdom of God going to be like?
Not What I Expected. Let me explain. My calling goes back to childhood. My father was a priest—not by ordination but by birth. As soon as he started teaching me Torah I fell in love with the prophets. My favorite was Jeremiah, because he was a prophet of judgment. I became captivated by Jeremiah’s story and how he said that the desert was where God would begin to renew his people. Jeremiah never married. I too felt a wife and family would hinder my call.
Not long after my bar mitzvah, my parents went home to the Lord. Relatives offered to take me in, but I had different ideas. So many in Israel were claiming to be God’s people but were breaking his commands. They thought that he didn’t care. Even some of the Temple priests thought their sacrifices were enough to make them pleasing to God. So many were observant when it came to our beloved rituals, but were sorely lacking when it came to purity of heart.
The Spirit of the prophets stirred in me. The fire of judgment was so close I could feel its heat. I left my comfortable village braided with vineyards and struck out for the desert by the Jordan. Like a lion in the desert I began to roar. Eventually, people came from everywhere, even from Jerusalem, to hear what I had to say. Some of them became my disciples. My cry of “Repent!” touched many, and they lined up to confess their sins and be washed in the river.
I knew this was revolutionary. It wasn’t the kind of ritual washing that people did in the mikvoth before entering the Temple. Neither was it a sin offering to make up for one’s faults. It was a preparation for the kingdom and for God’s Messiah. Some thought of him as a conquering king. Not me, though. I believed he was a holy judge.
So you can imagine my shock when this judge, Jesus of Nazareth, came for baptism! It was on a hot day, and the line was so long that I could not tell who was joining it. Suddenly I looked up, and there he was: the Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord. “This isn’t right,” I thought.
A Baptism of New Life. “Wait!” I blurted out. “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me as a penitent like the others.”
He stepped down from the bank into the muddy river and waded toward me. In a low voice I told him, “I shouldn’t be doing this. I am unworthy even to untie your sandals.”
“But it is right,” he countered. “I’m coming for the sins of my people and those of the whole world. Amen, I say to you, John, I will take their place before the Father.” I cringed at the thought that the fiery fate I had prophesied might touch him—my own flesh and blood.
When my hand gently laid his head under the water, it was like he was dying. It was as if he were being smothered by all the sins of the human race. But he didn’t stay under long. When he raised his head, he was beaming with life and joy. The sins had been drowned. That’s the way Jesus wanted it.
Then three things happened. I saw the sky split in two and release a blinding light. A dove alighted on his head, making me think of the dove that came back to Noah announcing a new creation. And then there was the voice: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
I felt like I was submersed myself—not in water, but in a great and powerful love. For a moment, I forgot about the scales of judgment. I forgot about the fire of God’s wrath. Here was indeed something greater and more mysterious than what God had revealed to me. That day marked the beginning of our journeys: his of ministry, mine of discovery.
After we parted, I kept fasting and praying and preaching conversion. Meanwhile some of my best disciples left to go with Jesus. I knew that would happen. But while he evangelized the cities, I held onto the desert. It was my home and the place where I felt God calling me to prepare the way of the Lord. I knew no other way.
Ministry of Mercy. One day a penitent arrived with news that again confirmed the need for public repentance. King Herod Antipas had stolen and married his brother’s wife. When the royal chariot passed by a few days later, I called out, “You are not allowed to have your brother’s wife! Repent!” The next day, Herod’s soldiers came and brought me here, to Machaerus.
God is compassionate, though, because Herod shows a spirit of curiosity. He even visits me here at the dungeon with questions. And he allows my disciples to visit me. Last month, I asked them to return to Galilee and look for the signs of God’s judgment that I felt sure Jesus was performing. I told them, “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). “Come back with news of how he’s doing that,” I said.
They returned three weeks ago, and I was stunned by what they reported. Not only was Jesus healing people, he was going to parties with known sinners like tax collectors. He was correcting the scribes and priests in the Temple and defending adulterous women on the streets.
“Lord God,” I asked, “have I misread the Scriptures? How could he be the Messiah?”
I have wrestled with that question through many a sleepless night. His ministry was not what I expected. Had I pointed out the wrong person? Was my hope in Jesus misplaced? I needed to know if my life’s work was in vain. Last week I finally decided to send my disciples to ask Jesus a simple but biting question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). His response would determine everything.
The Good News Proclaimed! “So what did he say?” I asked them anxiously the moment they returned.
“He said you are a prophet and more than a prophet,” they replied.
“Yes, but is he the one the prophets foretold?” I pressed them. “The one who will bring about God’s kingdom?”
They told me what Jesus had said to them. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Luke 7:22). And then he added, “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (7:23).
That last line cut to my heart. How could I have so misread him? Jesus is saying, “Look at the fruit of my ministry. People restored, given hope, and raised to abundant life.” The Messiah came for a purpose more glorious than I ever thought. I realize now that I have not only misunderstood Jesus: I have misread the prophets, at least by overlooking the new life they foretold. Jesus was not only quoting the promise of Isaiah, he was fulfilling it in keeping with what all of the prophets said about God’s mercy. Even my hero Jeremiah said: “With weeping they shall come, but with compassion I will guide them” (31:9). “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you” (31:3).
I feel tears building in my eyes. Maybe it’s because I’m beginning to see with Jesus’ eyes. The memory of his baptism comes back to me. My heart is growing warm. I see the heavens open and the dove descend. I hear the Father’s voice and mercy melts me. It is love, not wrath, that will win the world. I threatened judgment and gathered a handful of disciples. He offers mercy, and the whole world runs to him. Even with these chains, I run.
Fr. George Montague, SM, teaches at St. Mary’s University in Texas.