Jesus of Galilee
Still in Capernaum, Jesus went out again beside the sea; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he taught them. As he passed on he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax office, and he said to him as he had to the others, "Follow me." And like the others, Levi rose to follow him.
Tax collectors were ill-thought of in those days; not only were they employed by Roman officials, but in some cases were usurers who demanded from the people more than their share in order to pocket the profit; so the tax collectors were despised as sinners in the eyes of the populace. Levi, also known as Matthew, was quite well off; for he made a great feast for Jesus, and when Jesus went to the house of his new disciple to dine with him, there was a large company of tax collectors and many others sitting at table with him.
Scribes and Pharisees, of course, were not only in Jerusalem, but in every place where many people dwelt or traveled through; and here as usual they were watching to see that no one in any way transgressed the written law. Some of them came now and asked the disciples, "Why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" For the Jews were required to be very selective about not eating with anyone "unclean."
When Jesus heard this, he answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
And like a physician, he would not avoid those who were ill but enter among them to help. The sheep who are snug by the fireside are quite safe; but the good shepherd must go out and rescue the lost ones from danger, so that they might live.
At a later time, when the Pharisees and scribes were murmuring against him, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them," Jesus related to them this parable:
"What man among you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'
"Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
"Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
The Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting at that time, and some people came and asked Jesus, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast often, and offer prayers, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the groom with them, there can be no fasting. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and in that day they will fast."
Then he told them another parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old garment; if he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, 'the old is good.' "
He who is satisfied with what he has already, or who has found what is right for him sees no need to try something different. It is better to start "from scratch" in any new path, and not attempt too much compromise, lest the result be mixed.
John the Baptist was still in the secret dungeons of Machaerus where he waited, restless but with fervor undimmed. He had remained true to his mission, but now that human tyranny might cut off his life from one day to the next, he still had not received confirmation through an open and solemn declaration of the Messiah that his own revelations had been correct.
He was not completely isolated, for Herod nourished a superstitious veneration for John and permitted him to receive in prison the disciples who had remained faithful to him even after Jesus had begun his ministry.
His visitors told him of the stories concerning Jesus, but never had Jesus proclaimed himself the Messiah, and John must know the truth before his death. Perhaps John's disciples were partial to him and did not fully report Jesus' triumphs. But in any case, John desired verification of what he had seen at the Jordan and to be assured his life's mission was successfully completed. Otherwise, how could he even yield to execution, if he must seek further?
So he dispatched two of his disciples to ask Jesus this question, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we expect another?"
Jesus answer was not specific, but neither had he answered others directly. It was rather by his deeds that Jesus was gradually revealing himself as the Messiah. He knew that as soon as it was published openly, that would hasten the end.
When the messengers from John arrived, in that same hour Jesus healed a great many people of their diseases and plagues and of evil spirits; and he gave sight to many blind men. Then Jesus answered them, "Go tell John what you have heard and seen; that the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news -- and happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling block." It is difficult to believe that anyone could find in these things an obstacle to faith; but many did then, and many have even until now.
When the messengers were on their way back, Jesus began to speak to the people about John. "What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? If not then what did you go out to see? A man dressed in silks and satins? Surely you must look in palaces for that. But why did you go out -- to see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom Scripture says: 'Here is my herald, whom I send ahead of you, and he will prepare your way before you.' I tell you this: never has there appeared anyone born of woman greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
And all the people who heard it, even the tax collectors, justified themselves before God, for they were baptized by John. But the Pharisees and scribes suppressed the will of God in themselves, because they were not baptized by him. They found in themselves no cause for repentance.
Jesus went on to say, "From the days of John the Baptist unto now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence are taking it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John appeared; and if you are willing to accept it, he, John, is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Jesus here referred to the ancient prophecy, that before the Messiah appeared Elijah would return to precede him. The doctrine of reincarnation was an accepted "fact of life," requiring no further comment.
"How shall I describe this generation? They are like children sitting in the market-place and shouting at each other, 'We piped for you, and you would not dance.' 'We wept and wailed, and you would not mourn.' In other words, joyful or sad, they would not be pleased -- either with feasting or with fasting, but perversely would ask for just the opposite of what was brought them.
"For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He is possessed.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, 'Behold a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!' Yet God's wisdom is justified by her results."
Let us conclude the story of John the Baptist now. Though it did not happen all at once, this is what occurred before many months:
Herod protected John as long as he could, but Herodias found an opportunity when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers, and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias' daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it." And he grandly vowed, "Even to half of my kingdom."
Then the girl went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?" And Herodias said, "The head of John the Baptist." And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When the disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb, and they went and told Jesus.
When he heard what had happened, Jesus withdrew privately by boat to a lonely place; but people heard of it and came after him in crowds by land and from the towns. It was here then that Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fishes to feed them, which we will speak of later.
After John's death, Herod the tetrarch began to hear about the many works of Jesus, and he was both perplexed and curious to see him. When he heard of all that was happening, he did not know what to make ot it, and he said to his servants, "This is John the Baptist, he has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him."
Reports began to be circulated, and it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, "John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?" And he sought to see him.
You may sometimes hear John referred to as a "nazarite," or an "anchorite." What do they mean? John the Baptist lived like a true nazarite (the word meaning 'one consecrated,' 'devoted,' 'separated,' taken from the verb meaning "to consecrate" or "to vow"). This is not usually thought to refer to the town of Nazareth, or the term "Nazarene" as applied to one from that town, which name had a different root. But Lamsa considers that Nazarites may have settled at Nazareth and mentions the Hebrew word "Nazar," meaning "to take a vow."
A nazarite is not the member of a sect or group, but an individual who has dedicated his life to sacred purposes, either by virtue of mysterious divine endowment, or the vow of his mother. He was a devotee who separated himself unto God.
In early times the commitment was spontaneous and lifelong, expressing the charismatic gifts of the individual. Holy men played a large part in early Israel, being under the power of the Spirit of the Lord. Spontaneity, ecstasy and enthusiasm characterized these persons but the holiness expressed more in psychic and physical forms than in ethical qualities.
It was only in later days that rules were established to govern the behavior of a consecrated one. The three provisions that became marks of his sanctity were:
In earlier times the uncut growth of the hair was for his whole life, and in this case it symbolized the charismatic divine power with which he was endowed. But with the temporary vows, hair, like the blood, symbolized the life of a person. And later laws regulated this so that at the completion of the vow, his hair was cut and put on the fire as a burnt offering; or if he failed his vow the hair was buried, instead of being put on the altar fire.
It is clear that John the Baptist followed this path; it was said that he took no strong drink. John has also been called an "anchorite"; that is to say, one who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, a hermit, from the Greek word "anachoreein," meaning "to retire" or "retreat."