He had left his hometown at the earliest possible moment as a teenager, anxious to extract himself from the low life he’d been raised in. It hadn’t taken long to find work as a tax collector. It also didn’t take long to find out he could increase his monthly wages by doing what all the other tax collectors did without conscience -- increase the amount to be collected, give to Herod what was owed him and keep the rest for his own pleasure. When he came to collect from all the poor people, sure he got lots of pleading looks, and a few dirty ones, but he tried to look away and once again forget where he had come from. They no doubt hated giving more than Herod really asked for, but they knew that to protest would surely bring the authorities. Marcus brushed away any feelings of guilt. He didn’t have to think about them anymore. He had risen out of the pit. Why couldn’t they?
It was those same people who were now flocking to see John the baptizer here in the outskirts of town. What had they come to see? From the looks of it, someone just as filthy and crazed as they were. He caught his own thoughts with a twinge of guilt, because his own mother was among those he was denouncing. She was the only connection he had to his former life, a widow who depended on her only son. She had always been poor, but he had to admit that she always had a dignity about her that was beyond being rich or poor -- a sincerity that struck him whenever he came to her hovel and she asked how he was doing with her earnest, searching eyes. He would always brush her off and answer from the surface of his life, that he had everything he needed and was living in comfort.
But her eyes still probed and reminded him of the hole that had never been filled with any amount of money or worldly pleasures. A longing that he thought would have been filled with his monthly wages and benefits. Marcus barely admitted to himself that despite his loathing of everyone here, he was half-interested in the goings on of this wilderness prophet
He watched from his detached spot on the hill as one person after another plunged into the river to meet up with John. "Your sins are forgiven," John would announce before he dipped each person into the flowing water, and pulled them up again. Marcus thought back to the temple rituals he had heard about, how the rich would give money to have their sins forgiven. All these poor people had never been able to afford such luxury, and it was no wonder they flocked to the desert now that it was free of charge! All those years of guilt now washed away in the river. A cheap scam, he thought with his usual cynicism, and yet the look of joy and relief on each face streaming with river water suggested to him that it was more than money savings that drew them out here.
Marcus also noticed how some from his own class of people had begun to gather: soldiers, temple workers and even other tax collectors. Perhaps all curious, as he was. They too lined up to be baptized. When John noticed the newcomers, he exploded with wrath: "Brood of vipers! What do you think you’re doing, slithering down to the river like a brood of snakes? Have you come just because it’s a popular thing to do? Do you think a little water on your snake skin is going to deflect God’s judgement? It’s your life that must change, not your skin." Marcus felt his skin crawl as he realized he was being spoken to, despite trying to hide on the hill. Being compared to a snake reminded him of how he always felt sort of slimy each time he took money from his people.
One of those gathered tried to defend the rest. "We have Abraham as our Father!" As if that would calm John’s rage.
"You’re trying to pull rank now?!" John sputtered in disbelief. "Children of Abraham are a dime a dozen!" Picking up some stones from the riverbank, he added, "God can make children from these stones if he wants to! It isn’t the outside of the cup that matters, but the inside, your life."
By now Marcus was more than interested. John’s words perked his interest. He had to admit that the outside of his cup was sparkling and beyond reproach. But the inside… that was a place his efforts had not been able to touch. Several in the crowd asked John a question, and the pleading in their voices was hard to ignore. "What then are we supposed to do?" They were used to paying their way into salvation, but out here in the wilderness, money didn’t matter. All that was evident was what lacked in their lives -- joy, purpose and a sense of something larger. "Yes, what are we supposed to do?" another echoed. John’s answer surprised them, "If you have two coats, give one away. Do the same with your food."
Isn’t this a step back? Marcus wondered to himself. Doing that would land him back to where he had begun, a life lived close to the edge. What should he do? He had always planned every step with so much care, a way to control what his life would be like. To give things away would throw all that into disarray. As if his thoughts were being played out, a tax collector asked John, "Teacher, what should we do?" Marcus already knew what the reply would be. "No more extortion. Collect only what is required by the law." Marcus knew his gig was up when a soldier asked what he should do and John told them: "No more shakedowns, no more blackmail, and be content with your rations." Without crooked soldiers backing his pilfering of the poor, he would have to do what John told him.
What would it look like to take only what was required by law? Even more, what would it look like to be poor again, content with life as it was, putting aside his constant drive to make himself look good. Dependent on God to feed that place that earthly riches hadn’t been able to touch? Considering these questions brought about an almost visceral feeling of being cleansed, or of a weight being lifted off his shoulders. The icy cynicism that always dogged his conscience seemed to melt away. Though John was looking at each person being baptized, Marcus felt as though his eyes were searching his heart, just like his mother’s had always done. "How are you Marcus? How goes it with your soul?" All his efforts at self-improvement paled compared to the relief he felt.
Walking down to the river and being baptized by John was just a literal fulfilling of something that had already happened within him, the cleansing he had felt within up on the hill. "Your sins are forgiven," John said to him, and Marcus knew it to be true.
Sitting on the bank afterwards among the poor and destitute, feeling the desert sun dry his clothes, Marcus wondered who this man was. Others had the same thought and were whispering to one another, "Could this be the Messiah?" Knowing their thoughts, John spoke to the crowd.
"I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out! He’s going to clean house -- make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everythingtrue in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned!"
The metaphor of fire also seemed apt to what had happened to Marcus’ heart that afternoon. He thought of the workers of metal in his neighbourhood, how they had to burn away the dross before a metal like gold would be deemed pure. He had a lot of dross in his life, that he was sure of, much that still needed healing. Who was this Messiah that was to come? Marcus had received a baptism of water. What would a baptism of fire be like? As he took his ailing Mother by the hand to take her home, he knew he would never be the same.