The political scene appears to have its own set of rules. One of them seems to be: ‘never admit that your political opponent is right and you’re wrong’; another one: ‘never own up to your misdeeds unless you’re totally exposed’; and yet another one: ‘when you’ve run out of arguments, stick a label on your political opponents or call them names.’ In Scottish politics it means sticking a ‘Tory’ or ‘Nationalist’ label on views, opinions or proposals, thus automatically rendering them worthless. To be honest, it’s a bit unfair to single out this particular group of people, as in everyday life we tend to use similar tactics.
The envoys paying an official visit to John the Baptist in today’s gospel try to put a label on him, asking: ‘Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?’ After having rejected their unspoken assumption that he was the Messiah, John gives negative answers to their questions. Any positive response, either to their assumption or to their questions, would carry significant political weight in the highly charged and tense religious and political climate of that time. Any messianic proclamation was perceived as a call to arms against the Roman occupation as well as against the establishment. Those whose interests were endangered by any unrest and turmoil tried to extinguish the revolutionary flame before it burned too brightly. On the other hand they had to deal with any threat in a cunning way in order to avoid losing their influence over the impoverished masses, easily attracted to anybody promising a better future.
Unhappy with John’s clever negative answers, the envoys ask another question: ‘Who are you? What have you to say about yourself?’ They expect John’s declaration that inevitably would be self-labelling and consequently self-restricting. Cleverly he refers to himself the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘I am a voice in the wilderness: Make a straight way for the Lord.’ As I said in my sermon last Sunday, this prophecy was a call to leave the relative comfort of the Babylonian exile and return to the Holy City, Jerusalem; but that call was much more important on religious and spiritual levels than on the strictly geographical or political one.
The envoys’ failed attempt to stick a label on John the Baptist leads them to questioning his activities: ‘Why are you baptising?’ in the hope that this will either force him out of business or force him to make an open declaration. They are right – but not in a way they expect; John makes the declaration that someone much more powerful is following him, and that he himself is only a herald of that figure. John deprecates himself, rejecting any claim to fame, however tempting. It’s not about him, it’s all about his mission and the One he precedes.
In everyday life we bother, more or less consciously, about what other people think of us, and we prefer it if their opinions are favourable. On the other hand, we constantly form our own opinions about others, labelling them as friends or foes, pleasant or unpleasant, interesting or boring, smart or thick, bright or morons… We have a lot of labels to stick on those we’ve met. The labels seem to be useful as they help us to organise and to order our relationships. Once stuck on, however, usually following our first impressions or after a particularly unpleasant happening, they obscure our perception of the person and make any development of the relationship much more difficult, sometimes downright impossible. John’s call to make a straight way for the Lord is a call to sort out our relationships, because – as he warns – Jesus stands among us. Now unknown to us He, Jesus, comes to us through others, and sometimes through those we least expect!