In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke 2:1-2;19-20 (NIV)
In yesterday’s chapter, Luke related the story of Simeon who told Jesus’ mother that Jesus would cause the “rising and falling of many.” Now he lays out the political landscape of the day. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the Roman emperor (Tiberius Caesar) ultimately ruled along with the Roman governor in charge of the occupational force (Pilate). Then there was the local civic leaders, the sons of Herod the Great who operated the region as a client-state of Rome. For the people of Israel, they also answered to the religious authorities led by the high-priest Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Talk about a political mess.
Into this midst of this mess strides John, the cousin of Jesus. Luke introduced us to John’s story in the first chapter. John is out in the wilderness. While visiting Israel years ago I visited an archaeological site in the wilderness of southern Israel. At the time of Jesus, there was a community residing there who lived frugal, hermitic lives very similar to the monks in medieval monasteries. This community preached and practiced baptism and archaeologists had unearthed baptismal pools. Because the men were celibate in this community, they took in orphans as both a community service (orphans were a huge societal problem in that day) and to perpetuate their ranks.
Luke does not delve into the particulars of John’s life, but we know that his parents were old when he was born. It is quite possible that they died while he was young and he was sent to this community to be raised. There, he would have been taught to live off of the land, would have been educated in the scriptures, and they would have instilled in him the importance of ritual baptism.
I find it interesting that Luke lays out the landscape of political power, then introduces us to John who suddenly appears on the landscape like an ancient prophet out of the desert. John is not from inside any of the political or religious systems of that day. He is an outsider, preaching against the corruption and greed which the political systems bred. It would land him in prison.
Today I am thinking about the systems in which I live and work. Political systems, corporate systems, religious systems, and family systems. It’s amazing how we live within these systems and are influenced by them constantly without giving them much thought. I find it fascinating that both John and Jesus were outsiders. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus would preach to the world, is not an earthly Kingdom or system. Despite humanity’s constant effort to institutionalize it (which always leads to corruption), it remains a calling for those who are willing to follow a path outside of earthly systems.