Andrew and Peter, James and I, Philip, Nathanael and Jesus were baptized by the prophet, John. We felt we were ready for the coming of the Liberator of Israel. We had to return to our province. I remember that night, the last that we spent along the bend of Betabara, when we were all gathered in a tent to say our farewell…
Peter: This jug is for Philip, who hasn’t had a bath for three years!
Philip: And mine goes for Nata who, after that plunge into the water is now beginning to grow hair! See for yourselves, folks, how this is happening to a bald man, thanks to the waters of the River Jordan!
Nathanael: Leave me in peace, Philip. Don’t be such a bore…
James: Seriously now, fellows, didn’t you notice how the prophet John, was behaving?… He was restless, going to and fro like a bloodhound smelling his prey, but knew not where to catch him…
John: That’s right. The prophet was behaving strangely since yesterday. His eyes are fixed on something that is to come that we are not yet aware of….
James: Not – something but somebody. They heard him say that the Messiah is closely following us…
Nathanael: He’s always said that, and yet, not even a shadow appears.
Philip: Couldn’t he be the Messiah himself? Come on, tell me, who in this country possesses more guts than the baptizer, to reveal what is true? I think John is the man!
Peter: I don’t think so. He must be somebody stronger than John. He hasn’t spoken yet, but when he does, even the gods will tremble!
John: The only quiet person here is the Nazarene. Hey, Jesus, what’s the matter with you? Move closer, man….
Jesus: I gotta make an errand for a townmate who’s right now waiting for me…. I’ll be back soon….
Philip: Don’t be long. The skinny Andrew has just left to get some wine…
The townmate whom Jesus wanted to see that night was the prophet John. Jesus knew where he was sleeping: inside a hollow rock whose tip touched the river. He went to talk to him…
Baptist: That’s how it is, Jesus. We are distant cousins. My mother always remembered your mother with great affection and the time she spent with her in Ain Karem, before I was born… boy, how time flies! Later, I left home to enter the monastery and heard nothing about them. While in the monastery, I was informed of the death of my father, Zechariah. He was never in favor of my entering the monastery. Of course, he was a priest and you know, the priests of the temple of Jerusalem were archenemies of the Essenes in the desert.
Jesus: How is your mother Elizabeth?
Baptist: She died the following year. Uncle Joseph and Aunt Mary were there for the funeral. You must have been a little boy then.
Jesus: O yeah. I remember I was left alone in our house in Nazareth. Upon their return, there was trouble in Sepphoris. The city got burned, and so many were crucified… It was terrible.
Baptist: That was the time your father, Uncle Joseph, died, wasn’t it?
Jesus: No, that was a few years later. In Sepphoris there was always trouble, and since we lived very near… they punished him for having helped those who had escaped. They beat him up so that… well, he didn’t last long. Such a crime.
Baptist: Yes, these Romans are ruthless… They are to be feared…
Jesus: But you are not afraid of them. You can shout at their face anytime.
Baptist: But should I fear them? What can they get from me? Nothing. I have nothing to lose. I have neither money, nor a home, nor a family. I left nothing behind. Look, the only thing that they can take away from me is my voice. But I’ve already said what I wanted to say…. Now, we better talk about yourself. Tell me about your life. What do you do? Rather, what do you want to do?
Jesus: That’s why I wanted to talk to you, John. I need your help. I’m confused.
Baptist: So you do not know what to do. You have this feeling that God is hovering above your head like a mosquito but doesn’t tell you what to do. Is that it?
Jesus: Yes, sort of. I’ve been restless for several months now. As I see you now, I say to myself: Hell, this John’s really hittin’ the nail on the head. He opens the eyes of the people; he helps them… He really does something… On the other hand, what am I doing?
Baptist: Very well. You wanna work? Stay with me. You can assist me when I baptize people. As you’ve seen, there’s work for two, even for three hundred. Every day more and more caravans come, and I end up losing my voice because I talk and shout a lot. I tell you, I’m tired. Stay with me, Jesus. I think you got what it takes to be a preacher, is that right?
Jesus: I, become a preacher? No way. I’m just gonna stay in Nazareth with my tools and my bricks. I’m not good at talkin’ to people.
Baptist: Moses stammered; and Jeremiah was a little boy when God called them. They said exactly the same thing as you did. I also trembled when I opened my mouth for the first time… Now, it doesn’t really matter whether I face a thousand or ten thousand people. Come on, man, make up your mind. Stay with me, the two of us will manage.
Jesus: But…. I have a lot work in Nazareth…. and I….
Baptist: That’s alright. You don’t wanna be a preacher because you’re scared of the people. Then go to the monastery. I spent more than ten years there. Do you see those rocks over there… and those mountains?… Behind them is the Dead Sea. The fishes that are carried away by the current from the Jordan die as they reach the salty waters. It is a place where there are no animals, nor trees… There you will find the monastery, away from the world but closer to God.
Jesus: And who said that in order to be close to God, one should stay away from the world?
Baptist: That’s what the monks of the desert have been saying. That’s why they’ve hidden themselves in the monastery.
Jesus: That’s why you left; you wanted to be with the people.
Baptist: Yes, you’re right. God and the people are right here inside me. I don’t have to get rid of one to accommodate the other.
Jesus: So don’t talk to me about monks and solitude. I don’t wanna stay away from the people. I love to have friends, I like parties, and I love life. Isn’t God in all of these, in joy and happiness?
Baptist: I believe so, Jesus.
Baptist: And so, what else are you looking for? Get married, raise a family of ten children and who knows, one of them might be the Messiah. Then, you may live the rest of your life in peace.
Jesus: Right, that is what my mother always tells me, I don’t know, I’m really confused.
Baptist: You don’t wanna join the monks in the desert. Neither do you wanna live a normal life like the majority of the people, nor wish to stay with me, as there is much work to do…What is it that you want?… Fight? Then, join the guerrilla movement of the zealots. These groups are well organized in Galilee.
Jesus: I… don’t know. With the way things are, and knowing how powerful the Romans are, don’t you think it’s crazy to fight them? Is it really worth the bloodshed? Tell me.
Baptist: I see your point. I also ask myself the same questions…
Baptist: So you’re not joining the zealots, either.
Jesus: Help me, John, I’m confused. I don’t wanna be stingy with God. But He shouldn’t be stingy with me either. What does He want from me?
Baptist: Then, do what those who searched for the Lord have done: Go to the desert; go to the sandy mountain alone and there, between the heaven and the earth, shout to the Lord. He will respond to you.
Jesus: You can also hear other voices in the desert, not only God’s, but the voice of temptation.
Baptist: Yes, but the Spirit, who is more powerful, will be upon you and…. Jesus, who are you?
Jesus: What is it, John?
Baptist: Nothing, excuse me. For a moment, I thought…. Are you really the Nazarene whom I baptized this morning?
Jesus: Why, of course…. What’s the matter with you, John?
Baptist: Nothing, forget it… At times, I spend the whole night imagining how the Messiah would look like… Is he gonna be blond? Is he gonna have black hair? Is he gonna have a thick or thin beard? How is he gonna look at me? I have been waiting for him for a long time. At times, I feel he’s not coming anymore. I’m gonna die without seeing him.
Jesus: Don’t say that, John. You’re tired, that’s all. Well, I’m going back to my companions in the tent. I’ll heed your advice. Tomorrow I’m gonna go to the desert… Am I gonna see you again, someday?
Baptist: I hope so. Say “hello” to your Mom. Good luck, Jesus… Have courage.
Jesus: Thank you, John. Goodbye!
Jesus got back to our tent a little late. We were all gathered laughing, playing dice, and most of all, we were pouring wine into our mouths….
John: At last you’re back!…. Come on, Jesus, tell us some good jokes…
Philip: We were celebrating the coming of the Messiah… Hik!! and here you come at the right moment… Hik!… You must be our Messiah!… Hik!
Jesus: How many liters of wine are needed to get such a big head drunk, Philip?
Peter: Well, if I were the Messiah… I’d squeeze all the Romans into a net, including their capes and shields, tie them up and throw them in the middle of the lake for the fishes to feast on them….
James: You’re too good for nothing to become the Messiah, Peter. But if I were to become the Messiah, I’d transfer the capital to our province, and with the help of five hundred elephants, I’d pull out the Temple of Jerusalem, and likewise sow in Galilee. I’d be better off there than here in the south.
Peter: Hey, Jesus, what would you do if you were the Messiah?… Do you hear me? What would you do if you were the Messiah?…
Jesus: Knock it off, Peter. Stop kidding..
Peter: But I’m serious, Jesus…. Each one of us can be the Messiah. And why not? John says he is among us. He may be the bald one, or that skinny man or…. it could be you, Jesus. This is the Lord’s thing. If He says: “….this” then he is. If God says: “that,” then that is it. Any one can be the Messiah. You might even be the Liberator of Israel, Jesus!….
John: Hurray! Tomorrow I can go back to Galilee and dance with the plainest looking dame… tra, la, la, la..
Nathanael: Let’s have a toast, for tomorrow I’m gonna go back to my shop… Jesus, my dear brother, I’m so happy…
James: Hey, Jesus, we’ve decided to go back to Galilee tomorrow.
Jesus: That’s wonderful. I’m going back a little later.
John: You’re not coming with us tomorrow?
Jesus: No, first I gotta go to Jericho….
Peter: In that case, I’m going with you to Jericho and we will join these scoundrels on the road…
Jesus: No, Peter… I mean… I’m not really going to Jericho, but to the desert.
Peter: To the desert? What for? Do you intend to go there alone?
Peter: Are you out of your mind?
Jesus: Well, yes, a little.
Philip: I drink to this hick who is a little crazy, and for all the silly men gathered here!
To tell you the truth, since we had too much wine in our heads, I can hardly remember what else transpired that night, our last in Betabara.
John the Baptist’s character had a great impact on those who listened to him and even among those who knew him through the news about him reaching all the nooks and crannies of the country. He ought to have had a great influence on Jesus, who, later on would say that John was the greatest among those ever born of a woman (Mt 11:11). At the height of the movement spurred by the Baptist, Jesus discovered his calling, and upon John’s death, he would succeed him as the prophet. The relationship between John and Jesus, specifically referred to in the gospel of Luke, must be understood basically as a way to show the intimate link between the message by the previous prophet and that of Jesus.
It is very possible that John the Baptist lived in the monastery of the ascetics for some time, along the banks of the Dead Sea, near the place where he later on baptized the people. The Essenes belonged to a religious congregation formed about one hundred thirty years before the birth of Christ. They lived in community and practiced celibacy – although some of them belonged to married groups. They uttered special prayers, but did not offer animals as sacrifice. They also had a vow of poverty and shared common property. One of their concerns was to copy the holy scriptures. Some of these copies have even reached us following the discovery in Qumran in 1947. They are the oldest manuscripts of some books of the Bible. The most important is the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. At present, one can still see the ruins of this monastery. Parts have been preserved, like its walls, stairs, the purification pools, etc. Many objects found in these ruins are preserved in the Book Museum in Jerusalem, such as pots, sandals, coins, tables, etc. The ascetics isolated themselves from the world in order to avoid sin and considered themselves perfect and favored by God. This made them proud and even intolerant. One would think that John may have left this group because of their elitist tendencies.
John the Baptist showed Jesus various ways to carry out his desire to serve: through a monastic life, through family life, and by joining an armed movement. Jesus however, saw some obstacles in each. Not seeing himself in any of them, he did not become a monk nor anything of the sort. Instead, he mingled with his own people, and participated in all their concerns, their problems, their joys. Nor did he get married, nor compromise himself with the zealots or any other political groups of his time. He did not end up as a priest or levite. He was a lay man and never was part of any religious structure of his era. He was not even a part of the secular movement of the Pharisees. Living independently up to the end of his life, he did not isolate himself from the social class into which he was born.
In this episode are recorded some details about the death of Joseph, Mary’s spouse. There is no historical reference about the time and the manner by which Joseph died. What is historically known is the siege and destruction of the city of Sephoris during the youth of Jesus. Sephoris was located near Nazareth and was then the capital of Galilee. The Romans burned the city as a retaliation for the rebellion waged by the zealots.