A Story of Worth
I’m not a theologian, and I’ll be honest: I don’t know much about why the Pharisees were so interested in figuring out who John was or why it was a big deal that he was baptizing people. But the first time I read this passage, I was struck by the way they seemed to confront him about what he was doing: “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
In other words, why are you trying to do something that’s supposed to be done only by the most exalted of individuals? Who are you to perform baptisms, when you’re just some guy? (That’s the technical term.)
As a Duke student, this attitude was a little too familiar. Why are you trying to apply for this internship, or take this class, when you’re just an undergrad with no experience? Who are you to have these goals or take on this project, when you’re just some kid? Our entire college experience, as fantastic and enriching as it is, constantly runs us up against barriers of status, whether it’s because of our age, resume, background, or something else.
But my interpretation of the tone of this story — as one of doubt and contempt — might also be missing the mark. In a sermon c.1520, Martin Luther talks about this passage as a story of temptation and reverence:
“They do not offer him a present, nor ordinary glory, but the highest glory of all, the kingdom and all authority, being ready to accept him as the Christ. Surely a mighty and sweet temptation! […] When he would not accept this honor they tried him with another, and were ready to take him for Elijah. […] Seeing that he would not be Elijah, they go on tempting him and offer him the homage due to an ordinary prophet. […] Not knowing of any more honors, they left him to choose, as to who or what he wished to be regarded, for they greatly desired to do him homage.”
This casts the story in an entirely different light, making it a little harder to relate to John here. Rarely do we meet people so eager to treat us with honor and respect, and even less frequently do we turn down such an opportunity. Again, the temptation of focusing on status — titles, accolades, lines on resumes — can distract us from devoting time and energy to things that are more important in the long run.
Through both of these interpretations of this narrative — one of suspicion and one of praise — we see the twin dangers of holding ourselves in too low or too high regard. I know that in my own life, I often switch between feeling that I am unimportant, incapable, and unworthy to believing that I am the best and most amazing person I know. Neither perception is accurate, and neither is helpful.
Yet in the passage, John does not fall into either trap. He does not become defensive or frustrated at being derided and disparaged, nor does he claim the honor of the titles that are offered to him. Instead, he is secure in his knowledge of himself and his role in the greater story being told. He replies only that he is preparing a path for Jesus, whose glory far exceeds his own. John is oriented towards Christ, and he directs the others in that same direction. He feels no need to justify his actions or seek out honor for himself, because he knows that his purpose is to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus.
As we do the same during this time of Advent, we can take solace in the words of John (both the writer and the Baptist). Be secure in knowing that you were created to be good, and that you are good; remain humble and loving towards others regardless of status or qualifications; and orient yourselves and others towards Christ — a task that anyone, and everyone, is worthy of doing.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
Margaret Overton ’20