In my first two essays, I looked at how Jesus’s politics was formed by his radical mother Mary and the profound implications of Jesus’s birth for how we might think about power, outsiders, and disobedience. In this essay, I turn to look at Jesus’s hero.
Who is your hero? Who do you admire and aspire to be like? Who would you name as the greatest person to ever live? What is greatness?
These are massive questions. They’re worth stopping and thinking about for a moment. Our heroes and visions of greatness tell us a lot about ourselves, what we love, and our politics – how we think power should be exercised and people should be organized.
2. John’s Story
Jesus had a hero, someone he followed after and named the greatest person ever born. We can learn so much about the politics of Jesus by looking at this man’s story. The Gospels don’t give us an exhaustive portrait, but what they tell us is profound and thought-provoking.
Luke begins his story with a miracle child named John, who was born “in the time of Herod king of Judea” (1:5). This historical link is important and injects a sense of political danger into Luke’s narrative from the start. As Luke’s readers would have known, Herod’s son – named Herod Antipas – would end up killing John (Luke 9:9). Josephus, a Jewish historian contemporary with John and Jesus, is worth quoting here:
When others too joined the crowds around John, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that he did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval…
(Antiquities 18.3.2; see Mark 11:32)
Unsurprisingly, then, Luke later tells us that Herod cut off John’s head after being excited by a seductive dance on his birthday that gave him an excuse to eliminate his enemy (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9). Kings, power trips, fears of sedition, dirty dancing, and capital punishment: this is the stuff of John’s story – the story of Jesus’s hero.
John was a man who should have never been born, and yet he was. There is a sense of possibility bursting through the impossible in John’s birth story. An angel declares, “She who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail” (1:37). When her baby is born, Elizabeth names him John, a name unprecedented in their family and thus queer to cultural custom (1:60). John’s untraditional name got the village talking: “What then is this child going to be?” (1:66).
John would be Jesus’s older cousin by six months and his vocational trailblazer (Luke 1:76; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2-3). In fact, Mary visits Elizabeth during their overlapping pregnancies, and Elizabeth tells Mary that “the baby in my womb leaped for joy” when she heard Mary’s voice (1:44). It seems that John and Jesus were soul brothers from the womb.
John’s father Zechariah was ecstatic about his son, and he expressed his hopes in a politically charged outburst, referring to “the God of Israel,” “a horn of salvation,” “rescue from our enemies,” “and “the path of peace” (Luke 1:69-79). It seems that Zechariah thought his John would become a prophetic freedom fighter, exactly the kind of leader who would cause Herod “alarm” and fears of “upheaval” years later.
Unsurprisingly, then, John didn’t grow up to fit into mainstream culture. He was an oddball, the original straightedge: no alcohol, meat, or sex (Luke 1:15; 7:33). He ate honey and wore weird clothes (Matthew 3:4-5; Mark 1:6). It seems that John spent much of his time in solitude, out in the rugged Judean wilderness (1:80; 3:2; Matthew 3:1). Something profound was fermenting in this “prophet of the Most High” (1:76).
Around thirty, John burst into public affairs from the periphery – “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” (3:1-2). These tongue-twisting names are Luke’s way of intentionally locating John on the political map of his day.
Amidst this political hornets’ nest buzzing with dangerous power, John starts baptizing people in the River Jordan. Baptism was the opposite of an apolitical religious ritual. It was a public symbol of radical change, a provocative sign of starting over – like a personal exodus or liberation movement from the slavery of injustice. When you’re dunked under the water, you’re dead – finished with the status quo. When you rise up out of the water, you begin a new life of radical generosity and justice for the poor and powerless.
This is how John himself unpacked the implications of his public practice. John didn’t give his hearers any words to repeat or a confession to store away in their hearts. He especially had zero tolerance for racial and religious pride, since his message was for “all people” (Luke 3:6-8; see 2:10; Matthew 3:7-9). John simply told people to confront their failures and change their lives, especially as they related to wealth and power:
“Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone has food should do the same. Tax collectors, don’t collect any more than you are required to. Soldiers, don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
(Luke 3:9, 11-14; also Matthew 3:8-10)
If God is finally going to show up in person and establish his kingdom, how do you get ready? How do you prepare for this epic event that Mary and so many others were aching for?
John’s answer was surprisingly simple, intensely practical, and implicitly political: Give your extra food and clothes to the poor; don’t embezzle money; don’t abuse power – be generous and just. When you’re soaking-wet with generosity and justice, you’re ready for God, and God will come.
So John was a radical. He thought a clean break with the past and a total reset were necessary to find God’s path. He wasn’t a philosopher content with abstract principles or a priest caught up in the temple. He was a public prophet passionate about moral practice. In Greek, John called this whole baptismal movement metanoia or a revolution in the mind. His message was simple: “Metanoiete [Reverse how you think], for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Luke 3:3, 8; Matthew 3:2, 11; Mark 1:4).
For John, this was the euangelion – God’s “good news” that would replace Caesar’s euangelion of power-driven empire (Luke 3:18). Shockingly, Jesus himself insisted on being baptized by his cousin. In fact, John’s baptism is how Jesus made his first public appearance (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11). Indeed, Jesus’s circle took up John’s practice of baptism in their own ministry (John 3:22; 4:2).
Stop and think for a moment. If we believed that God’s heavenly kingdom were about to invade America or Ethiopia or somewhere else, how would we get ready? What is most important?
Interestingly, John didn’t say a word about the temple or reforming doctrine. He talked about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and resisting the urge to exploit others. Here again we hear echoes of Mary’s protest song: “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble… He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
But as we saw at the beginning, John’s radical message of moral revolution would end up costing him his liberty – and then his life. John refused to censor himself or politely stay out of politics, and he started to “rebuke” Herod for his family corruption “and all the other evil things he had done” (Luke 3:19). Truth telling is dangerous, and as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
The human being who loves because he has been made free by God’s truth is the most revolutionary human being on earth. He is the overturning of all values; he is the explosive material in human society; he is the most dangerous human being. (Bonhoeffer, Sermon from 1932)
So, fed up with John’s critique and its potential to cause “upheaval,” Herod jailed John and eventually cut off his head.
3. Jesus’s Hero
Now, it is astonishing to me that Jesus launches his public career exactly when John gets locked up for his radical message (Matthew 4:12-17; Mark 1:14-15).
Of all the moments that Jesus could have gone public, Jesus stepped into John’s shoes when he was put on death row. Indeed, Jesus did something even more brash and bold: he made John’s message his own – literally word-for-word: “Metanoiete [reverse how you think], for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:1-2 and 4:17). As we have seen, Jesus’s inner circle also started baptizing people.
Everyone knows that if someone has just been imprisoned for saying and doing specific things in public, the last thing you should do is start saying and doing those same things, especially in public. But that’s exactly what Jesus did. He refused to let his trailblazer’s voice fall silent, and Jesus himself publicly criticized Herod for his predatory violence (Luke 13:32). Unsurprisingly, Luke tells us here that Herod wanted to kill Jesus too (13:31-33).
But Jesus became even more provocative. He struck up a conversation in public with a large “crowd” precisely about John. People who live under authoritarian regimes know not to mention the names of political prisoners in public, especially recent and radical ones. Talking about public enemies is instantaneous guilt-by-association that could lead to prison or death.
But Jesus did this too. And what he says is astonishing.
Jesus names John as the greatest man who ever lived: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28a).
This statement was radioactive and rebellious. Jesus not only starts talking about a high-profile political prisoner in public. He exalts him as the greatest man in history before “a crowd” of people. It’s as if Jesus said, “That death-row ‘terrorist’ – he’s my hero.” It’s hard to imagine a more fierce – and risky – protest to predatory power.
But as usual, Jesus’s message came with a twist. Jesus immediately turned around and told the crowd, “Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John” (Matthew 11:12; Luke 7:28b).
Here Jesus makes a shocking public statement of praise for an enemy of the state. But in the same breath, he revolutionizes the hierarchy of value altogether. It’s as if Jesus says, “When you really understand John’s metanoia, it’s worthless to be ‘great.’” What matters is generosity and justice – and even the least can practice that. It’s accessible to everyone who has been “baptized,” even the sinners and other outcasts (Luke 7:29).
Here Jesus rejects the logic of top and bottom, the greats and losers. If you’re a nobody, you can still be “greater” than John, because God’s kingdom is upside down. Its system of value is completely queer to culture, just like John’s name, which had no precedent in his family.
If you’ve been dunked in the dirty water of the Jordan, you already know that clothes, feasts, money, power – all the signs of wealth and winning – are worth nothing to God and should be given away for the welfare of others. Unsurprisingly, Jesus would later make the fierce statement,
“What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15)
Indeed, as the son of Mary and cousin of John, Jesus made status reversal a centerpiece of his preaching, insisting that, “The first shall be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30) and “The greatest among you should be like the youngest and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 19:27). So even the least can be greater than John.
According to Jesus, then, the greatest man who ever lived showed us that greatness is a sham – and that was his greatness. What God wants is something completely different from what popular culture chases. God wants metanoia proved by generosity and justice for the poor and oppressed. God wants rulers to stop abusing their power and for the humble to be lifted up, just like Mary sang. God wants truth spoken to power, even if it gets your head cut off. This was the foundation of Bonhoeffer’s radical preaching after Hitler came to power:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak. I feel that Christianity is rather doing too little in showing these points than doing too much. Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offense, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong… Not the powerful is right, but ultimately the weak is always right. So Christianity means a devaluation of all human values and the establishment of a new order of values in the sight of Christ. (Bonhoeffer, Sermon from 1934)
That’s greatness – the anti-great goodness that anyone can do with God’s help.
Jesus’s hero speaks volumes about what Jesus valued, and he also speaks volumes against so much of our hero-worship today, especially in politics with our promises of greatness through wealth, power, and isolation. According to John and Jesus, God wants generosity and justice, even if it costs you your life. Without that, slogans of greatness are just the smokescreens of cynical politicians who have missed the point of God’s kingdom – “foxes” that con and kill for their own ego.
So, if you want what God has to offer, go get dunked in the Jordan by a counter-cultural oddball, like Jesus did.
And then share your food and clothes with the poor, and refuse to extort money and abuse the oppressed.
If that voice for truth and justice gets shut up or locked down, don’t retreat or be silent. Take up the message of metanoia and declare the presence of God’s upside-down kingdom.
Then you’re on the path that God is paving. Then you’ll be ready when God shows up. “Metanoiete, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
Stop & Think: Questions to Wrestle With
- Who is your hero, and what might this person reveal about your deepest loves and highest values?
- Are you surprised that John was Jesus’s hero? What does Jesus’s praise for this radical moral prophet, public enemy, and victim of capital punishment say about Jesus’s own loves and values as a leader?
- How is “great(ness)” imagined and invoked in contemporary political speech, and how might Jesus’s critique of “greatness” transform these ideals?