At that time, many went to the Jordan to see John the Baptist. The prophet’s powerful voice drew a lot of people to fill the dry and dusty roads of Judea. The same happened on the roads of Galilee, though to a lesser degree. In springtime, these roads were filled with flowers, with new blossoms and very tall green grass that was at times waist-high.
Philip: I’m dyin’ to see that prophet! Some people told me that he’s the straightest guy who’s walked on earth in a long time. Others say, though, that they couldn’t hack his terrible temper!
Nathanael: Oh! Philip, I’m worn to the bones… What I wanna do now is fall dead on the hay and snore the time away… We got up so early today.
Philip: Don’t you sleep, Nathanael, we gotta reach Magdala before lunch. We barely have enough time. Jason, the tavern owner, offers the nicest fish in town during the first hour… If we get there late, he’s gonna treat us with rotting fish… He always does that, and I’m pretty well used to that. I was there last week and I had to eat the leftovers of those who had come in early.
Philip and Nathanael were old pals. They knew each other from way back. They had played together, and at times, had also worked together. Years ago they had gone into separate trades. Philip hopped from town to town selling a little of everything: amulets, combs, scissors, fish hooks, pots and pans… everything. While, Nathanael had a shop in Canaan, Galilee. There he worked with wool, and from time to time, fashioned things made out of leather.
Nathanael: Well then, cheer up, man!
Philip: I’m cheerful, Nathanael, I really am. That is what I’m saying: if John the Baptist is, as they say, a prophet, the time of hope for us empty-bellied folks, has come… I’ve already taken note of that. I’ve never sold so many things before. You hit the road, you meet people on the way to Jordan and, without your noticing it, you sell them something for the trip. See what I mean?… That’s why I say John is a prophet. He’s brought me luck…
Nathanael: Quit foolin’ around, Philip. I still don’t understand how many stupid thoughts slip out of that big head… But do you seriously think he’s a prophet?
Philip: It ain’t no stupid idea, Nathanael. Don’t you think the Messiah will start a world far better than this one? Will he not bring justice? Well, justice is my being able to drop coins into my bag… I’ve suffered much hunger. God’s time should also be my time… Look, Nathanael, I brought these to see if I can sell them… I’m grabbing opportunities opening up during the trip, don’t you see?
Nathanael: Well, what do you have there? Necklaces?
Philip: What do you think? Aren’t they beautiful? Look at this one!
Nathanael: Philip, to whom will you sell these necklaces?
Philip: Oh, they say Jordan is full of women… he – he – he… You know! The very stupid ones are easy to fool. I’m gonna be doing them a real favor by offering them this beautiful stuff… I’m gonna help them improve their business…
Nathanael: Do many prostitutes come to see the prophet?
Philip: A lot!… That’s according to those who have been there…
Nathanael: Blessed be the Most High!… What ever made me come with you? I already told you that that prophet is…
Philip: What? What about that prophet? He’s a prophet of the poor. He announces great changes for the earth, Nathanael. We gotta listen to him. We should always listen to the voice of God…
Philip and Nathanael arrived at Magdala by noon. Magdala was a city whose air was thick with the smell of wine, women and fish. It lies on the banks of the great Tiberiades Lake. From the hills up north, many travelling caravans and camels enter the city. They stop at Magdala and continue their trip into Galilean territory…
Jason: Hello, Philip!… It’s been a long time since we bumped into each other in this tavern, you shameless fellow!… What?… What are you going to sell us today? I tell you, when the full moon begins, and it started yesterday, it is a bad time to do business…!
Philip: I didn’t come to sell, Jason. My friend and I, we’re just passing through.
Jason: And who is your friend? I’ve never seen him here before.
Philip: Well, he seldom comes this way. He’s busy with his wife, his children, his mother-in-law, and his shop. He’s from Canaan and he hardly goes out from there… You know, he has lots of work…
Jason: What brings you to Magdala, friend…? Are you fed up with your wife…? He – he – … here in this city, there are women who can heal all sorrows… Hey, you seem to be a serious man. What’s your name?
Jason: Nathanael. Very well. And what do Philip and Nathanael want? Are they going to spend the night here? I can find two nice beds for both of you…
Philip: We won’t be spending the night, Jason. We gotta get goin’.
Nathanael: I’m so sleepy but… well, we’ll just sleep for a while under some tree…
Jason: And where are these friends headin’ to that they are in such a hurry?
Philip: We’re going to Jordan to see the prophet.
Jason: By Moses’ beard!… Two more guests who’ve also been fooled! Even you, Philip? Oh, the prophet!… Now come, did you lose something at the bottom of the river that you are now going to put your head into that murky water?… Well, surely, this little bald guy with a little-boy face has really put the craziness in you!… Hike more than a hundred miles just to see that long-haired man!
Philip: Look, Jason, let’s quit arguing. We’re hungry.
Jason: You’ll get more hungry when you get to where the prophet is! They say John is flesh and bones,… that he only eats locusts and he makes people fast and do penance… I’ll whip you up something that will load your stomachs for a week!
Philip: Hey, Jason, make it fresh fish, will you?
People began to fill Jason’s tavern. The smell of fish and grape wine was getting stronger. People were eating on the floor and some, on top of rocks. The first ones to arrive grabbed the few available wooden stools. Philip and Nathanael went into a corner with their freshly-broiled fish, olives and hot sauce. After a while, when only fish bones remained on the plate, they saw someone enter. It was someone they knew….
Philip: Guess who’s here!
Nathanael: Who’s that?
Philip: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary!… What could he be doing here? Hey, Jesus!… Jesus! Come over here!
Jumping over plates and taking care not to topple a wine jar, Jesus approached the corner where Philip and Nathanael were.
Jesus: What’s up, Philip? How are you, Nathanael?… I didn’t expect I would meet somebody I knew here.
Philip: And so? Do you have work here in Magdala?
Jesus: No, I’m going to Jordan.
Philip: You’re going to Jordan?… You, too?
Jesus: Aren’t you two going to see John the prophet?
Philip: That idea entered his head and it took hold of me also…
Jesus: What have you done, Nathanael? Have you closed your shop?
Nathanael: No, but I have little work these days. I left my wife to take care of it in case something crops up. I think it won’t be long till we get to the Jordan…
Philip: Hey, Jason, bring over another serving of fish and a glass of wine! Now, it’s gonna be the three of us who will go and see the prophet!
Nathanael: Don’t yell, Philip!… Must everybody know where we are going?… They’ll be laughing at us…
Philip: Let them laugh… Probably some of them are also going to the Jordan… Hey, my friends, is there anyone among you who’s going to the Jordan?
Nathanael: Shut up, Philip, please…! What a jerk you are!
Philip: This prophet has shaken the entire nation of Israel. I’ve seen it because I travel north and south. To be able to move so many people is a sign that one comes from God… Don’t you think so, Jesus?
Jesus: I think so. That’s why I’m going there, too.
Jason: Oh boy! So you are also going to the river? Where are you from?
Jason: Nazareth? I don’t think many from that God-forsaken place have gone to the Jordan… There are more rats than people in that village!
Jesus: A few days ago, Benjamin, the son of Rachel, left for the Jordan. He’s a friend of mine.
Jason: And where are you going now? What kind of people are these! Just like sheep, all go where one goes! What crazy people! One can dream of prophets and divine signs while staying here and having a great time! You, Nazarene, don’t you like that? I have very good wine and a few women… There is nothing like that in your town. Why don’t you hang around a few days and leave these two south-bound nuts?
Jesus: Look, I wanna meet the prophet. I’ll be hangin’ around Magdala some other time, promise.
Jason: What thick illusion-filled skulls! Hey, Nazarene, munch those dorados and chat with me later…! Let’s see if you don’t change your mind! I gotta go now because I got a lot of things to do!
Philip: The fish is very good, Jesus, they are the best in the lake.
Jesus: I can see that, Philip… you’re swallowing them, head, tail and bones!
Philip: Jason’s wife is a whiz when it comes to cooking.
Nathanael: But Jason is a rascal. He makes fun of prophets. That’s very bad, it’s the worst thing to do in the world.
Philip: Hey, Jesus, you believe that John will be the Savior of Israel? Many people say so… and there are those who disagree.
Jesus: I don’t know, Philip. One has to see him and hear what he says first…
Nathanael: Israel’s Savior oughtta clean this nation of all stupidity. They say John immerses people’s heads in the river and one becomes a new person when he pulls you out.
Philip: Hey, I like that! It’s been seven months since I had my last bath!
Jesus: I’m sure that John is a prophet. It’s been a long time since a man who said so many truths appeared in this country!
Nathanael: I’m not sure of anything. I’ve never seen a prophet. Prophets belonged in another time when God remembered his people and ruled them….
Jesus: Well, Nathanael, I think God has remembered us again and has sent us John.
Philip: It’s all the same to me whether it be God or the devil! What I only wanna see is that baptizer shouting the word…
Nathanael: What word, Philip?
Philip: That which is needed here, my goodness! That we the down-trodden poor need someone to come and tell us: “wake up, slumbering people the time has come!”
Nathanael: Shut up, Philip!
Philip: Girdle your loins… This time, it’s for real!
Nathanael: Philip, by God…!
Philip: Everyone united… march onward as one!
Nathanael: Hush, Philip! Instead of going to Jordan, we might end up in jail! Hey, Jesus, finish those bones and let’s get going…!
Jesus: Yes, Philip, let’s get going! Leave those speeches for another time. We still have two more days of travel before getting to see John the Baptist!
John was baptizing people in Betabara, in Perea, south of the old city of Jericho, near the Dead Sea. Many people then came to listen to his words, seeking to find Israel’s Savior in his person.
John the Baptist’s preaching of justice aroused the nation of Israel’s hopes in the coming of the Messiah. It launched a true people’s movement. People from all of Judea and also from the neighboring province of Galilee in the North travelled to Jordan to hear John and prepare themselves – for baptism in the river – to receive the hoped-for redeemer.
“Messiah” is an Aramaic word which means “anointed.” The Greek word is equivalent to “Christ.” In Israel, kings, when they ascend to the throne, were anointed with oil as a sign of sanctification and blessing from God (I S 10:1). Throughout its history – a history filled with failures, defeats and slavery – Israel hoped for a redeemer from God who would bring lasting peace. Some hundred years before Christ’s birth, this hoped-for savior began to be called “Messiah,” in the belief that he would be a powerful king who would make Israel a great nation and drive away foreign masters from its land and give justice to the poor. When the first Christian communities recognized the Messiah in Jesus, they also began to call him “Christ,” meaning, God’s Anointed, his Envoy, his Blessed One. Among the four gospels, Matthew’s is the one that marks Jesus’ messianic character the strongest, it being a text especially written for Jewish readers. The coming of the Messiah, what this person would do, how to recognize him, where he would come from – some thought he would be an angel, while others thought he would be a great priest – were topics of conversation among the people during Jesus’ time.
For the people of Israel, prophets were people of God who spoke in his Name. They interpreted events, denounced injustice, and announced God’s plans. They were feared by kings and rulers. After years of not having a prophet in the country, the people saw in John a prophet. Some even came to the point of seeing the hoped-for Messiah in him. This explains the mobilization of the masses who were aroused by the words of the Baptist.
In this episode, we see two of Jesus’ disciples: Philip and Nathanael. Little is known about Philip: he was from Bethsaida and he is mentioned only five times in the Gospel texts. Much less is known about Nathanael: John only mentions him twice. In the lists of the twelve apostles, Nathanael has always been identified with Bartholomew. Philip, the itinerant vendor, happy, ingenious, and always preoccupied with his retail business, and Nathanael, the tanner, the older one, disillusioned and indecisive, were poor men who lived the insecurity that marked their social class. John the Baptist’s message of salvation caught the imagination of the lower class.
Magdala was a city located on the banks of the Tiberiades lake, along the caravan route which entered Galilee from the mountains of Syria. As a transient point, taverns and brothels made money there, like the ports in our own country. There are few archeological remains dating back to the Magdala of Gospel times.
(Mt 3:5-6; Mk 1:5; Lk 3:7)