The Jerusalem of Jesus' time was a commercial as well as a political and religious hub of activity. It had a problem with political terrorism, mostly from the extreme wing of the Zealot party, but this was largely under control. It had problems with soap-box preachers, but these were largely ignored. It had problems with disease and poverty and political corruption, but in this it was no different from every other major city in the world.
The people in Jerusalem, including the Jewish authorities, were not particularly happy with Roman rule, but except for the Zealots, they were resigned to it, just like they were resigned to poverty, disease and the general corruption of politics and religion and social life. They were satisfied because their own social and political standing was relatively secure. They were living under the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. The last thing they wanted was for some charismatic preacher to enter the scene and stir things up.
John the Baptist stepped into this scene. He was an extraordinarily charismatic preacher. He was also extraordinarily blunt, even with high political authority. He told King Herod to his face that he was in danger of losing his soul in the sin of adultery. He told the Scribes and Pharisees, "Who told you you could flee from the coming wrath?" At the same time, he lived a life of extreme asceticism, denying himself all earthly pleasures, except for curds and honey, and enough clothing and shelter to keep out the bitter night air. Because of all this, the people came to regard him as a prophet.
The Jewish authorities, of course, had been dealing with prophets, both real and false, for well over a thousand years. Some of these prophets, like Moses and Samuel, were the authorities. These authorities had learned techniques of questioning prophetic authority that had served them well during all this time. These techniques had been very effective at weeding out false prophets. Their problem, though they didn't see it as a problem, was that they also succeeded in weeding out many true prophets, and often ended up putting them to death.
John the Baptist responded to their questions about his authority in a rather unusual way. Rather than argue that he was a prophet who should be listened to, he responded "No." to every question about that authority.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, "Who are you?" He admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, "I am not the Christ." So they asked him, "What are you then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No."
He made one reference to the prophetic writings of Isaiah,
I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord.'
But, his appeal to authority contained his message within it. His mission was to do exactly what Isaiah said. He did not allow any challenge to deflect him from his mission. He did not allow any earthly ambition to deflect him from his mission.
Finally, one more challenge from authority,
Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."
To his last breath, John kept to his mission: Prepare the way of the Lord. He baptized with water as a symbolic gesture to get people to concretely express their need for spiritual and moral cleansing. He never demanded anything from them, except repentance. He never passed the hat. He never demanded anyone's praise. He never demanded a place at anyone's table or a seat on the tribal council, the Sanhedrin. At the same time, he never claimed to offer the people anything, not forgiveness from God, not a better world, not healing or prosperity, nothing. He offered only one thing, the immanent arrival of one who could bring them all these things, but only if they repented and turned back to God.
In our day, we, too, have become complacent with the way things are, as long as our own positions are not threatened. When we lose a job or lose our health, we feel lost and alone, and we don't know where to turn. But, as long as we have financial and physical health, friends to laugh with and a family to call our own, we hardly give a moment's thought to the possibility that we might need moral and spiritual healing.
Like the Jewish leaders, we have become very adept at questioning prophetic authority. The common wisdom of the world today is, "You can't legislate morality." As if the laws of the country had nothing to do with morality! There are still laws agains sins of stealing and against sins of bearing false witness, at least in court or on a legal document. As long as the person murdered is not in someone's womb at the time, and as long as they're not thought to be in a persistent vegetative state, there are even laws against murder. In a few restricted instances, there are laws against suicide. All of these things legislate morality. The commandments of God that are not legislated are these: sins of adultery and sexual impurity, sins of coveting, sins of blasphemy, sins of idol worship and sins of desecrating time and resources that belong to the Lord. People today even want to remove any reference to Christ from the Christmas holiday season.
There is not the slightest justification for moral or political complacency about any of this. We are in quite the same position today, morally speaking, that the people of Jerusalem were in in Jesus' time. When John the Baptist spoke out against the evil of his time, he was beheaded. When Jesus spoke out against the evil of his time, he was crucified.
Fortunately for us, Jesus' obedience unto death made it possible for us to be saved. God offers us the grace of forgiveness, a grace won by Jesus' passion and death. But, as John knew, we cannot receive this gift unless we are willing to do the hard work of preparing to receive the Lord.
We can't receive the grace of forgiveness without also accepting and cultivating repentance. We can't receive the grace of moral vitality without accepting the grace of purity. We can't receive the grace of wisdom without accepting the grace of humility. We can't receive the grace of loving self-sacrifice without accepting the grace of self-denial. John accepted all of these prerequisite graces, and because he did, he received the grace of a martyr's death. Today, we call him St. John the Baptist, and we know that he occupies a very high place in heaven.