John the Baptist's bedside manner

I have always been intrigued by the Biblical character John the Baptist. It’s interesting to me that two of the four Gospels describe in some detail that his appearance was not ordinary, that he stood out by his odd appearance.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. Mark 1:6

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Matthew 3:4

Now the authors of these texts have another agenda in mind besides telling us that John the Baptist was a man who arrived on the scene with an odd appearance. They also wanted to connect John with the prophet Elijah, who also wore a garment of camel hair and a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). The “rough” clothing and austere diet recall the stern self-sacrificing, self-denying ministries of the Old Testament prophets, not that of a lucrative religious leaders of that time. In this way John's clothes were an enacted parable protesting the self-indulgent religious establishment. Furthermore, John's clothes fit the emphasized humility of Jesus' arrival, the King who was born to an unknown family, laid in an animal trough, and announced to lowly shepherds.

But another aspect of John’s appearance that I think goes largely overlooked is the diversity of approaches to compassion and kindness. It’s interesting to me that when Jesus is depicted in many mainline churches he appears to be with children, with soft and beautiful animals like sheep, in green and lush landscapes, or bending over to heal someone in pain or afflicted with illness. It’s like we have an appearance that goes with the act of kindness and compassion and we cannot decouple the two. In our mind to be kind and compassionate is to be warm, soft and non-threatening.

Yet John the Baptist with his stern “You brood of vipers!” is hardly an image of kindness and compassion in our limited mindset. When we think of someone offering us care don’t imagine them wearing camel’s hair, eating wild locusts and honey. In my life’s experience some of the most deeply healing conversations and relationship have been with persons who had a crusty exterior, a rough manner. And some of the people I’ve met who were the most gentle, sweet and sensitive were the most elusive when they were most needed by others, including me. Often in my life the sensitive ones, raised on a mantra of self-care, were too absorbed in their own needs to have a lot left over for others. More than once I have arrived at a hospital bed to visit someone I did not know well to hear, “When I thought about who would be here for me in this hour of need you were not at the top of my list.” When I asked why the answer was always the same, that I was not a gentle or sensitive sort. But the persons who were gentle and sensitive did not always show up when needed, they had their own issues to resolve.

Listen to the evidence of John’s rough compassion and kindness.

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Luke 3:10, 11

It’s not how we speak or how we appear to others that marks our kindness and compassion, rather it is what we do, where we are when needed and how we demonstrate and live out our words of care.