Cultural Context Second Sunday of Advent A
December 8, 2013
John the Dipper
The word “baptism,” which is transliterated directly from the Greek, actually
means “dipping in a liquid.” In Mediterranean antiquity, water, fire,
and wind (or spirit) were viewed as liquids that could be poured upon or into people.
“Groups” came to John (from Jerusalem, all Judea, the Jordan region, Mt 3:5) because in antiquity only group travel was safe. Ideal travel was with kin and fictive kin.
Moreover, travel in antiquity was considered deviant behavior unless one had
a specific reason like pilgrimage or coming out to hear a prophet.
Of course John summoned individuals to repentance, but he lumped them into groups, as we shall see.
By word and symbol, John preaches repentance, particularly group repentance, namely, the reform of Israel (Mt 3:2).
John’s garb (camel’s-hair clothing cinched
with a leather belt) and food (locusts and honey) symbolically link him with
Samson, Samuel, and Elijah, who represent the Old Testament tradition of resistance
to injustice and the revolutionary model of renewing society.
John’s preaching challenges various groups to reform. Clearly the prophet and
his sympathetic listeners are dissatisfied with the status quo.
In the life of Jesus, the transfiguration and resurrection should also be viewed as symbols
of transformation calling for conversion, repentance, reform, social change,
revolution, and radical transformation of the human condition.
At a very obvious level, John challenges elites to reform their lives. The basic
claim to honor in a society whose core values are honor and shame is made through
birth. One is born into an honorable status, whatever it may be.
Imagine the impact of John the Dipper publicly and loudly calling the “honorable” Pharisees
and Sadducees “snake-bastards”! The phrase “brood of vipers” attributes
their paternity to snakes rather than humans and directly challenges their basic claim to honor!
On a less obvious level, John challenges the priestly aristocracy.
While many have thought that Judean society in first century Palestine was divided between
priests versus people as a whole, the division was actually more between high
priesthood (the Jerusalem elite) and the people and their ordinary priests (like
Zechariah, the father of John) living in the outlying villages.
The oppression worked upon the people and their ordinary priests by the Jerusalem
elite and their Roman patrons was experienced in exorbitant taxes, confiscation
of ancestral property, and chronic shortages of food, among other things. This
contributed much to social unrest and desire for change.
John’s priestly descent from an ordinary priest gave him firsthand experience of the problem. It very
likely inspired and shaped his prophetic preaching.
John the Dipper concluded his preaching with a play on the symbolism of liquids
(water, fire, wind-spirit). His symbolic dipping of repentant Israelites in warm
water will be replaced with a judgmental dipping by “him who is to come” in
the liquid of “holy wind or spirit” and fire.
Now is the time for listeners to repent and escape the judgment.
For modern American believers, Advent often means commemorating the birth of
the baby Jesus and preparing to celebrate Christmas in the grand tradition of charity to the needy and gift giving.
The intensely political coloring of the
Baptist’s activity should give modern believers pause. Have we diluted his challenge?
J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and
facilitator of parish renewals.Liturgical Press has published
fourteen books by Pilch exploring the
“cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to
find out more.
The complete text of the
above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1995. pp. 4-6.
Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the
Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training
Publications. This art may be reproduced
only by parishes who purchase the
collection in book or CD-ROM form. For
more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/