A few years ago, I discovered a painting of John the Baptist that shocked me. If you are at all into Christian art, you know that normally we see John the Baptist depicted as a gaunt and grizzled guy with really bad hair and wearing animal skins, pointing to Jesus who is nearby, usually on a cross. He looks like the kind of guy who calls people a brood of vipers, which, after Repent! is his best known line.
The painting I saw, though, was so very different from that. This John the Baptist is young, with a glorious cascade of curls —he reminded me of Kenny G —and soft facial features. His head is cocked and he looks right at you in gentle greeting. And he points, not to Jesus who is not even in this picture, but up to heaven. And, get this, he is smiling. Smiling - even more than the Mona Lisa, that enigmatic lady who was created by the same artist, Leonardo da Vinci. This was sort of like John the Baptist as played by Fabio. I was shocked but also entranced. So I did some research.
It turns out that there’s been some negative commentary on Leonardo’s painting over the centuries. Critics were affronted by this depiction of John. He’s supposed to be a fiery ascetic, challenging you as you take in the scene. He’s not supposed to be smiling as if to beckon you gently. Some even said that this painting could not really be by the great Leonardo da Vinci because he would have known better than to paint a good-looking, friendly J the B with no Jesus to baptize or point to. It must have been painted by one of his assistants or students, they said. It’s a terrible painting, they said. This is blasphemous, they said.
But bluntly calling people a brood of vipers, a nest of deadly snakes, is not all that John is about. He’s not simply a wild-eyed character standing on the street corner shouting at people like a crazy person and holding up a placard that says you’re all going to hell.
In fact, once you get past the bombastic opening of his exhortation, he practically sounds like Mr. Rogers. When the people, genuinely concerned about his warning, ask him one by one, what shall we do then to bear good fruit? He simply says, share. Share what you have. Be fair. Be fair in your dealings with others. And don’t use your power to bully.
He doesn’t tell the tax collectors they have to quit their jobs. He doesn’t tell the soldiers they have to become conscientious objectors. He doesn’t tell the poor they have to work harder so they can afford a donation to a charity. They can bear fruit just as they are, just where they are, by sharing what they have, by being honest and fair, by showing mercy. That’s it.
This all sounds so good to the people that they start to wonder if this John could be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. Yes, he certainly got their attention with some blunt talk, but in essence his message is about kindness and generosity, about justice and mercy, about paying attention to and nurturing the common good. This is the good news that John preaches to the people.
Perhaps it was this aspect of John’s proclamation that Leonardo was trying to portray in his unorthodox portrait. A man pointing to heaven and issuing a simple and loving invitation to bear fruit, as you are, where you are, in response to God’s mercy and desire for reconciliation, in response to God’s offer of salvation.
This John is the forerunner of the savior who comes to make the blind see and the lame walk and to set the captives free, a savior who comes to deliver us from bondage to things that diminish us as children of God: Things like selfishness and greed, bullying and hate, violence and oppression, like victim blaming and get ahead-ism and, perhaps most deadly and at the root of it all, indifference to suffering.
And so we can see why the call to repentance. We are all implicated in systems of inequality and greed and subject to fear of those we don’t know or understand. That’s part of the nature of belonging to human society. John asks, ok John demands, that we notice that.
He demands that we take notice of the poisonous webs of racism and sexism and classism that we are all caught up in, that we notice the widening gap between rich and poor, that we notice our privilege and notice the ill treatment of strangers and even children of strangers and says, repent. Turn away from those things. Reorient yourself toward God and God’s justice and righteousness.
And maybe some of us need to hear that call to repentance in its raw form to wake up from complacency or to jolt us out of the self-protection mode in which we find ourselves hiding from the busy, noisy, demanding, overwhelming world out there.
But here is the good news. At its heart, John’s message about bearing good fruit points us to the places where we already are and beckons us to practice honesty, to share, to be satisfied with what we have, to treat others with respect and compassion, to support instead of intimidate. These do not require Herculean efforts, or moving to a third-world country, or special equipment, or advanced degrees, or more money than we already have.
And every day in the place where I am, here in the St. Stephen’s community, I do see and hear about the good fruit you are bearing.
On Mondays, volunteers assist hungry people shopping in our food pantry while others hand out bags of actual fruit to our neighbors in the East End. On Tuesdays, we offer wellness programs to help strengthen aging bodies. On Wednesdays, we knit prayer shawls for those struggling with frailty and illness. On Thursdays, we host groups that work to support children, or those with mental health issues or addiction, and groups that work against racism while lay ministers visit men and women in the city jail. On Fridays, stitchers create needlepoint memorials for the church and volunteers collate bulletins for Sunday worship while adults walk East end children to school and provide friendship and support. On Saturdays, gleaners collect food from the Farmers’ Market to give away on Mondays, and on Sundays we pray and sing and eat with one another, welcoming new friends into the community, connecting with, upholding and encouraging each other through prayer and worship and listening ears and loving touches. And that’s just a little of what I see here at church.
John says, in his own special way, that we are to be blessed by the coming of a savior who will take away our blemishes and frailties and failings - the chaff of our lives - and refine us into our pure selves, children of God.
And in response, since we asked, we are to be a blessing in the world around us by sharing what we have, by being honest and fair, and by showing mercy.