People from the land of Judea and the city of Jerusalem, even those from faraway Galilee came to listen to John the Baptist. When they repented and confessed their sins, the prophet baptized them in the waters of the river Jordan. My brother James and I, Peter and his brother Andrew, Philip, Jesus and Nathanael were also there…
Baptist: It is the Lord who said to me: “Raise your voice like a trumpet and denounce the sins and rebelliousness of my people. Shout out the injustices committed against the poor throughout the countryside and the cities!”… Go back to the Lord! Be sorry from the bottom of your hearts and the gift of life shall be given back to you!
Philip: This prophet keeps on saying the same thing. I wonder if he doesn’t tire himself. We have been here for two hours and he sings nothing but the same song…
Nathanael: Shsss! Quiet, Philip; I’m listening…
Philip: But Nathan, don’t you see I’m bored?…
James: Don’t be silly, Philip. You gotta shout out these things to the people so they get it into their heads.
Philip: Be converted, be converted…blah-blah-blah…. But what the hell is to be converted? I don’t understand it.
John: It means “to change.” And to change means to topple the Romans and kick them out of our land…
Andrew: Come on, Philip, ask the prophet what oughtta be done in order to be converted. He’ll tell you. John wants people to ask him questions.
Philip: You think so, Andrew?
Andrew: Why, of course, man. Come on, ask him anything.
Philip: Eh, prophet of God! Prophet John!
Natheniel: Hey Philip, for your Mom’s sake in Bethsaida, shut up.! Don’t make trouble….
Philip: But I gotta ask the prophet… “Hey, prophet John!!”
Nathanael: You’ll make a boo-boo, as always.
Baptist: Who called my name?
Peter: This big head over here wants to ask you somethin’!… Here!
Baptist: What do you want to know, brother?
Philip: John, you keep on talking of conversion, of changing one’s ways, of preparing the way, for the one who is to come… Tell me, how should I prepare myself? We who are hungry, how can we do this? What are we gonna do?
Baptist: First of all, there must be justice. You hear me? There must be justice!
Philip: Better explain that further, prophet. You see I’m a stupid man and…
Baptist: How many blankets have you got?
Philip: Well, I feel embarrassed to say this, but… I only got one at home, plus this other one on me….
Baptist: So you have two. You have an extra blanket. Give it to the one who has none. In Israel, there are a number of naked people with not even a rag to cover themselves!… You want me to be more specific?… You, the one on the side… yes, do not hide yourself…. how many pairs of sandals do you have?… Two?.. Three?.. What you are not wearing are the extra pairs. In Israel, so many walk barefooted, with not even a pair of sandals to wear. Share what you have with them. Have you got two pieces of bread? Share it with the hungry. Let no one have anything in excess so that no one will be in need. This is what the Lord wants. This is the meaning of conversion: sharing. Justice, brothers and sisters, justice! I am preparing the way for the Lord, and the Lord speaks through my lips: that every one may eat, that everyone be clothed, that everyone may live… Oh, he who turns his back on another, turns his back on the Lord!.. Woe to him who closes his door to the traveler, who turns out to be the Messiah, who comes knocking at your door!
James: Very well said! This is exactly what we zealots are asking for! Justice!
Philip: Well, Peter, you may now hand me that blanket you have on… The prophet tells us to share what one has… I say you must begin with your friends. Charity begins at home, don’t you think so, Andrew?
Andrew: This man is indeed a prophet. All prophets before spoke of justice. The message of the prophets is always the same.
Nathanael: Well, speaking of giving half of what you have… For example, I have a shop, with four tools, but… this does not mean I am rich. I simply have enough to…..
James: Don’t worry, Nathanael. The rich are something else. Look at those people coming… They are traitors!
Amid the crowd, two men with silken turbans passed and headed for the shore. The tall one had pockmarks on his face. We knew little about this man, and more about the other. His name was Matthew and he collected taxes in our city, in Capernaum. He was slightly limping and had a short gray beard full of bare patches. As always, he must have been drinking… We all hated Matthew because he was helping the Romans…
James: Traitor to the country! Get outta here! Out!
All: Out! Down with the traitors! Outta this place. Leeches!
Jesus: This man looks drunk.
John: Of course, otherwise he wouldn’t have dared come here. We know him very well, Jesus. Believe me, in this country you won’t find a man more cowardly than Matthew.
Philip: Hey, James, my ears are already buzzing. For heaven’s sake, quit yelling! As far as I know, this is a place for sinners, right? Matthew must be the greatest bandit of them all, but he too, has the right to see the prophet.
James: The only right he has is to be hanged!
Matthew and his companion were able to reach the shore. At that time, John was baptizing a few heavily made-up prostitutes. Matthew waited a while for them to get out of the water…
Matthew: Prophet of the most high! We have heard that Galilean ask you what he had to do…!
All: Stay away from here! You traitor to the country. Traitors!
Baptist: Quiet! I want to hear what this man has to say. God wants to listen to him too. Speak up!
Matthew: Prophet of the most high! What must we do?
Matthew: We are Jews, but… we collect taxes for the Romans. What must we do?
Baptist: Let not your hands be stained by collecting more than what is prescribed by law! The Romans have laid a heavy burden on our people. Do not compound this burden by robbing the people of the little that they have. The Romans have trampled on our lands. Don’t make the yoke heavier, nor the hand of the foreigner more oppressive.
Matthew: Will there be salvation for us?
Baptist: Salvation is for the one who seeks it. The one who will come after me will separate the grain from the chaff. He will keep the grain in his barn while he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. But there is still time to repent! Get converted and be cleansed with purifying water!
The two tax collectors went near the water. Matthew was staggering due to fear and, perhaps, for being drunk. Then John the prophet held them by the hair and submerged them in the warm and dirty water of the Jordan, where the sins of the prostitutes, the poor and the usurers were floating in disarray; big sins and small sins, all the faults of our people…
One Soldier: Master! John! Speak to us!
Baptist: What do you want?
Soldier: You have spoken before the Romans. We are Roman soldiers. We have come to see you because your word has also reached us. We wear the uniform of those who have made themselves masters of this land, but we wish to be baptized too. What must we do in order to save ourselves from evil?
Baptist: The only owner of this land and of all the countries of the world is God! You may be the strong ones now and you punish the weak. Tomorrow, the stronger ones will come and they will beat you. Today, the kings and the rulers of this earth are like a herb which is green, but it will dry up tomorrow and get burned. God is the only king! The only law is that of the Lord! And God’s law is justice!
Peter: Beware, prophet! If you keep on talking like that, you’ll soon be brought to Pilate!
Baptist: God is the master of all lives. It is not Pilate, nor Herod, nor the Roman army! Soldiers, you must not threaten the people, nor accuse anyone of things they haven’t done. Don’t tell lies in court, nor abuse your power. Be content with your wages and don’t rob the poor of their shelter nor their food. All these, you must observe, you, Roman soldiers….!
Philip: I am beginning to like this prophet. He yells at me, and also at the Romans. This John is one helluva brave man…
Philip: Come on, let’s go…. Today, we have had enough of the yellings of this John, the baptizer…
Jesus: Just a moment, Peter… I would like to ask the prophet something….
Peter: Did you say your were going to ask him something?…. But you know fully well what his reply will be “justice, justice, and justice….” I’m leaving now….
Jesus: Just a minute, Peter…. John! I want to ask you something!
Baptist: Speak up, Galilean. I’m listening to you!
Jesus: Prophet John…. I… I do not know if I am meddling in something I am not aware of, but….
Philip: Speak louder, or he won’t hear you!
Jesus: I was saying that…. Oh well, you were saying: Feed the hungry. You also say: Don’t cheat in your taxes. Likewise, do not use violence. All this is good, but… these are only the branches….. What about the trunk?
Baptist: What do you mean?
Jesus: I believe that if the branches yielding bad fruits are pruned every time, they will continuously bear bad fruits, because the trunk is bad, and the roots are rotten…. Prophet John, what must we do in order to pull out these roots so that no one will ever starve, no soldier will ever use force, no ruler will ever collect taxes?
Baptist: Who are you?
Jesus: My name is Jesus. I came yesterday, with my two friends from the north. I have heard you speak, that is why I’m asking you.
Baptist: I cannot answer what you are asking me. Somebody else will. I baptize with water, but after me will come someone who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. I only trim the branches. He uproots the tree, burns the bad roots and rids the garden of all weeds.
Jesus: And who is this one that is to come? Whom are you talking about?
But John did not reply anymore. The wind began to blow along the River Jordan. The bamboo trees swayed and the waters formed into small and giant whirlpools. John stayed on top of a rock, looking afar. His eyes were burning on account of the sun and blazing with hope as they gazed through the horizon, in anticipation of the One who was to come.
Justice is an essential topic in all Scripture. That God is just, as the prophets have said again and again, means that he is a liberator who takes up the cause of the poor and demands that the rights of the oppressed be respected. He is upright, and does not allow himself to be corrupted by any deceitful word nor any meaningless cult. The Kingdom of God that is to come and is announced to the people is a Kingdom of Justice. A Kingdom where there is equality, where the hopes of the people will be realized. Knowing God which, in biblical language, is the same as loving him, is doing what is just (Jer 22:13-16). True religion consists of recognizing the rights of the poor and maintaining just relations among people: (Is 1:10-18; Jer 7:1-11.)
In proclaiming justice, John the Baptist demanded “conversion” from the people who were listening to him. The biblical meaning of this word is not “to confess, to repent, to have remorse of conscience.” Rather, it refers to a change of ways, a return to the Lord who is just, and like him, doing what is just. There is no conversion before God without any conversion before others, and especially before the poor. Conversion means sharing. He who does not share is not within the justice of God.
With regard to the Roman soldiers, John concretizes conversion in terms of non-abuse of power. The soldiers, foreigners as they were, were recruited from the masses. As servants of imperialism, afflicted with the system’s corruption and emboldened by the arms provided them, they continued to oppress the people. The tax collectors like Matthew, officials of the empire or local officials, because of their position extorted money from the poor. John denounces cheating in the collection of funds. Conversion has to pass through one’s pockets. It always involves rejection of power. Good intentions are not enough.
The question that Jesus asks John concerns the matter of structural sin and personal offense. One can trim the old branches of a tree, only when the roots are rotten… Sin and injustice are not only an individual transgression which can be amended by way of individual conversion. There are situations of sin: An economic regime that is profit-oriented, benefiting only a small few, where, in the process of competition, the poor become poorer, and the rich become richer. This is the structure of sin. A political regime that allows no participation of the people on the matter of decision-making, utilizing torture, crime, fraud and corruption for its survival, is likewise an institutional sin. An integral liberation, more than individual change, is needed in order to defeat sin. The Gospel is a transformation of society.