“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
There is no single way to live out our lives faithfully. This is the beauty of discipleship. Faithfulness is never the product of a one-size-fits-all faith. We do not become more Christ-like by being cookie-cutter Christians. Followers have no formula, they just listen and follow.
The gospel texts present John the Baptist and Jesus both as model lives of faith. And yet, their lifestyles could not have been more different. As Matthew 11 points out, John fasted, but Jesus feasted. John was a teetotaler; Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine. John called people to repentance; Jesus ate and drank with sinners. Despite their differences, they witnessed to the same wisdom. They witnessed to a wisdom marked by grace but hidden from all who would rather be god than acknowledge their need for God.
The way the gospels describe John reminds me of the show on Discovery Channel called Naked and Afraid. Two folks are dropped off somewhere in the remote wilderness, naked and with only a few tools to use for their survival. (The commercials are interesting, but I’ve never actually seen the show. I think I’ve been lost and alone in too many random placed in the world, and perhaps this show seems too close to home. But mostly, I’m an urbanite. My experiences of being lost and alone have almost always been in streets crowded with strangers. Drop me off naked in the remote wilderness, and I promise I will die of starvation within a week. If all Christian disciples had to live like John, I’m certain I would not make the cut.)
The important thing about the way John’s life witnessed the truth of the Gospel, however, is not in his strange ascetic practices but in his message of repentance. John called the people of Israel to repent. His preaching drew large crowds. And John’s message received special attention from certain religious leaders who might have found what he had to say akin to their own. These were those religious folk who taught that God was a harsh judge, that human beings should be treated with contempt, and that life should be lived out in obedience to a strict list of rules and regulations.
But John saw through the teachings of these religious leaders. He knew that they had not come to repent or to call others into repentance. Repentance means that God’s grace is at work, bringing about transformation, restoring lives so they can shine in their created beauty. And John knew these religious leaders were not preaching transformation. They were preaching judgment. They were not about restoration. They were about control. Their agenda was to make others believe they were worthless so that they could continue to justify their authority. They did not want people to turn to God. They wanted to be gods.
We might say these religious leaders represented a form of religious life that can be characterized as worm theology. That is, because humans are sinful creatures, the faithful life is a life of guilt and sorrow. This kind of belief teaches that humans are cursed, and there is nothing good about them. Faithfulness of this kind results in feeling bad about yourself, or making others feel bad about themselves. They might say, “If you don’t feel bad about yourself, you are not doing it right.”
But here is the truth:
Anytime a religion teaches that people should believe they are worthless creatures, beware! The agenda is clearly to rob people of their agency. And the most effective forms of oppression are the those that insidiously convince people that it is deserved!
But this is not the Gospel. This is not the message John preached.
John fasted, but Jesus feasted. John lived out in the wilderness, but Jesus lived among the people. Like John, Jesus drew large crowds. And he drew special attention from those who like to throw dinner parties, inviting Jesus to be the guest of honor. These were people who believed they were on top of the world. They believed that the world was made for them. Because of their special place in the world, they believed that they could live carelessly.
But that was not what Jesus preached. Jesus welcomed the lowly and ate with broken and hurting. Rather than being the guest of honor among the nobility, Jesus prefered to be an outcast among the outcasts. Jesus never gave in to the belief that some people should be “on top of the world” at the expense of others. That is not the Gospel.
While they lived out their faithfulness differently, John and Jesus witnessed to the same Gospel truth: We are all God’s beloved creatures, and we should live like it.
Following Jesus will look differently for each of us. For some of us in some seasons of our lives it may look more like John–ascetic, fasting, living in the wilderness, bearing witness to our need for repentance. For others, it may look more like Jesus–celebratory, feasting, living among people, bearing witness to the joys of being God’s beloved. We are certainly called to live lives of repentance. But this is not because we are worthless worms; it is because we are deeply loved by God. God intends for us to thoroughly love and enjoy life–but never at the expense of others. Whatever shape our faith takes, if it is to be faithful to the Gospel, it must be repentant and ever cautious of the temptation to play god rather than depend on God. But it also must be rooted in a deep and abiding love for the world. For love is what faith looks like when it is lived out.