‘What sort of person did you go out into the desert to see?’ Jesus asked the crowds who had swarmed out of the towns and villages to see John the Baptist, ‘A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces’.
Jesus’ question suggests that people like John were not a common sight in Israel. So was it the novelty of his appearance, as much as the power of his message, that brought so many people out, like wasps round a pot of marmalade? John’s destiny drove him to an unusual and austere way of life – careless of propriety and stripped of all home comforts.
It has been suggested that John had taken a Naziritic vow. The New Testament does not say this. But his diet is interesting. Nazirites were forbidden to take alcoholic drinks, vinegar and raisins – all things that take time to mature. John’s food was locusts and wild honey – that could simply be gathered on the hoof, so to speak. He lived off the land, and was independent of the normal processes of provision.
Most of us would shrink from a life like John’s. We go for safe conformity rather than conspicuous originality. We care a lot what people think. We stick to the corporate culture. We may sometimes rationalise this conventionality by arguing that Christians shouldn’t be labelled as odd-balls or freaks.
John, however, was one of those people who rise above public opinion. And the essential simplicity of his life set him free to focus on his calling and more clearly listen to God.
An article in the Times of Wednesday July 26, about ‘positive deviants’, argues that it is often those who do things differently, who are willing to step out of line, to think outside the box, whose ideas can bring dramatic improvements to organisations or situations. Perhaps more of us might become ‘positive deviants’, like John the Baptist, and the rest of us become more willing to learn from the odd-balls and eccentrics.