Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art
The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.
John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance? He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).
Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.