The Greatest Man Born of Women:  St. John the Baptist

The most beloved saint, the most highly venerated after the Blessed Virgin Theotokos is the Holy Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist. In our Orthodox Faith, every Tuesday is dedicated to his memory along with six feastdays throughout the calendar of the liturgical year.  In our own Carpatho-Russian Diocese, twelve churches are dedicated to his memory.  Our Lord Himself, his cousin, honored him with the greatest title to be bestowed upon a person:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)

Since many details of his life are recorded in the Holy Bible his story is well known by all Christians.  The Gospel according to St. Luke records the story of his miraculous conception and birth.  The Archangel Gabriel was sent from God to announce his conception and birth to his father Zacharias.  The angel prophesied:

For he will be great in the sight of the Lord….He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.  He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah… (Luke 1:15-17)

Even while in his mother’s womb, he recognized Christ.  When the Blessed Virgin Mary visited his mother Elizabeth “the babe in her womb leaped” at the presence of the unborn Christ in the womb of Mary.  Those who argue that the Holy Bible teaches nothing about abortion should consider this passage.  The unborn St. John recognized the unborn Christ!   St. Luke goes on to carefully record the events of his birth:  his father’s loss of speech because he doubted the angel’s message which was then restored on the occasion of John’s circumcision and receiving his name from his father.

Nothing further is recorded about his early life except for this one verse:

So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.  (Luke 1:80)

The Holy Tradition of our Church has passed down this additional information.  King Herod issued a decree demanding the execution of all male children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem in order to destroy the infant Jesus.  Zacharias hid the infant John and his mother Elizabeth in a cave beyond the Jordan.  For this, Zacharias was denounced to Herod and killed while in the Temple. 

His Preaching

Then the day came for his “manifestation to Israel”: In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying,  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”   (Matthew 3:1-2)

 St. John began to fulfill what was prophesied about him:  He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah…  Like Elijah, John called the people to repentance, to return to their Lord.  Like Elijah, John wore clothing of “camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist”,  (In 2 Kings 1:8 Elijah was described as wearing “a garment of haircloth, with a leather belt around his waist”.)

Something about John attracted the people, and they flocked to the wilderness to him:

Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were baptizedby him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.    (Mark 1:4-5)

What attracted them to him?  Certainly they recognized the importance of his preaching as he challenged the people to prove their repentance:  “bear fruits worthy of repentance”  (Luke 3:8)   He called the people “bear fruits of repentance” by sharing with the needy, avoiding cheating and dishonesty.  But above all, the people were attracted to him because they saw that St. John did not merely “talk the talk” but “walked the walk” seeing in him holiness as he lived an ascetic lifestyle of fasting and poverty.

Throughout his preaching he reminded the people:  “One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose…” (Luke 3:16)   And then the day came when the “One Mightier than I” appeared at the Jordan and John exclaimed:  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.  (John 1:29)   From that day on, St. John seems to recede in the background as the ministry of the Lord Jesus begins, as John himself described:  “He must increase, but I must decrease”.   (John 3:30)

The End

St. John’s ministry came to an end when he was arrested and imprisoned by King Herod because John called out his sin of taking his brother’s wife:  Herodias.  In one poignant scene, the Bible depicts John in prison and he receives word of the many miracles performed by Jesus.  It seems that John wants to be sure that what he staked his life on was true.    He sends messengers to ask Jesus:  “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”  (Matthew 11:3)  Jesus responded very simply reminding John that  He has fulfilled all that was prophesied concerning the coming Messiah.

And then the day came when St. John offered his very life for his Savior and Lord.  The story is well known and is repeated each year when we remember the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29/September 11.  Herodias never forgot that John had declared her relationship with King Herod to be immoral.  She had her chance to get even when her daughter danced for Herod on his birthday and offered her any gift she wished.  Rejecting silver or gold, at the instigation of her mother she asked for “the head of John the Baptist on a platter”. 

Judgmental Priests

St. John suffered this horrible death for one simple reason:  he declared the relationship of King Herod and Herodias to be immoral and sinful.  To our modern thinking, any priest who would say such a thing would be quickly labeled “judgmental” and would be reminded of Jesus’ teaching: “Judge not, that you be not judged”. (Matthew 7:1)  This teaching of Jesus is frequently misquoted and misunderstood.  By simply repeating “Judge not” there is no behavior that can ever be said to be wrong or immoral:  robbery, murder, stealing, lying…etc. We are called to judge between right and wrong but with the proper motivation.   St. John Chrysostom in the 4th century addressed the proper motivation necessary:

 What then! say you: if one commit fornication, may I not say that fornication is a bad thing, nor at all correct him that is playing the wanton? Nay, correct him, but not as a foe, nor as an adversary exacting a penalty, but as a physician providing medicines. (Homily 23 on Matthew)

St. John’s motive in correcting King Herod was to bring him to repentance and correction and to lead to his salvation, not to condemn, belittle or for John to set himself up as morally superior.  Like John, we priests especially have the obligation and duty to call people entrusted to us to repentance from sinful behavior in order to bring healing, wholeness, and salvation.  To ignore the sinful behavior of one of our spiritual children, to “look the other way” in order to be “pastoral” and “non-judgmental” is spiritual malpractice.  To allow people we love and care for to remain in sin is an indication that we do not have their best interests in our hearts.  We priests must be aware of the temptation and the need to “be liked” and to “get along so we go along” and fear losing a church member.  In the Holy Bible the Holy Prophet Jeremiah especially warns pastors who neglect to correct their flock when they put themselves in danger:

“…from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.  They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”  (Jeremiah 6:13-14;  8:10-11)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to every one who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’”  (Jeremiah 23:16-17)

The Church is a hospital for sinners, priests and bishops are the physicians helping us to be healed.  Just as physicians themselves need physicians and medicines so too do the clergy need to continually battle against their sinful passions and seek healing in the Church.  They have the responsibility to call us to repentance and to change our behavior and lifestyle when we are on the path that leads to damnation.  Their intention must never be one of moral superiority, to correct us in anger or self-righteousness but in love, care and compassion.  Unfortunately, no matter how kind, pastoral and caring a priest may be, it is often the case that people will resist any call to repentance, especially in areas of sexual morality.  Years ago I spoke with a priest friend who had a church member who owned and operated a local convenience store.  While making a purchase, the priest noted “adult” magazines for sale in the store.  Quietly and as kindly as possible, the priest asked his parishioner if selling these magazines was appropriate.  The man’s response was angry and terse:  “That’s my personal life and none of your business!”   

We celebrate the memory of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John:  the greatest man born of woman.  He remained faithful to the Lord through his life, ministry and to his death.  He called people to return to their Lord and he continues to call us:  Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)

- Father Edward Pehanich