I wrote previously about how universal is this question: Who are you? What is your authority? Why should listen to you? And how amazingly humble John the Baptist’s answer was: he puts all attention on Jesus.
Let’s look now at the questioners: the priests and Levites. Their bosses sent them out to Bethany — a place my study bible says we don’t where this Bethany was exactly — presumably it is not the one 2 miles or so from Jerusalem, but another one “across the Jordan”. So a small village, unimportant, not many people? Maybe not even a village as much as a cross-roads? John would be baptizing someplace people could reach, so a cross-roads fits. Are those fair assumptions? They might not have sent the “A team”, but instead people who need to prove their skills; maybe even people who are afraid of messing up. Perhaps a “boss Pharisee” said to this team of men (they were men), “hey this annoying thing is going on by the Jordan river, some guy is baptizing people, find out who he is and come tell us.” And off they went – by donkey? By camel? On foot? How far? Google found me a lovely page of “Distances from Jerusalem” (http://www.biblecharts.org/biblelandnotes/Distances%20From%20Jerusalem.pdf) that says the Jordan River is 21 miles east. I think that would be a good day’s walk, maybe longer depending on the terrain, right?
So this team of investigators is tired, hot, dirty and dusty, hungry, maybe nervous or even scared. Are they proud of the assignment? Is this a chance to better themselves? Or is this a botheration and they are annoyed to be away from home, away from the office?
I think at first they thought it would be easy: “Who are you?” I think what they expected to hear was John’s lineage – who is father was, and his grandfather, where he was from, that sort of things. The facts. They were sent from Jerusalem, from the Pharisees, why wouldn’t this guy just quickly – and politely and efficiently – answer their question? But he doesn’t.
So they get real simple, thinking perhaps this guy is simple-minded: Are you the Messiah? (The one in the back, holding the donkey and wondering about dinner, rolls his eyes.) No, fine, let’s look at our form. (I realize that they likely didn’t literally have a form, but they are clearly going down a checklist, even if is mental. So roll with my metaphor.) Are you Elijah? (The guy in the back snickers.) No. Okay, speaking very clearly, Are you the prophet?
And John says one simple word: no.
So now their simple job is torn to tatters, the bosses want to know who this guy is, if they go back without that info then they are in big trouble. So they raise their voice: “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (Their arms are crossed or hands planted on their hips, maybe one of them is tapping his foot. They got the body language going.)
For their trouble they get a quote from Isaiah.
That is unlikely to fit into any pattern of expectation that they had. Yet, it isn’t the gibberish of a madman; they can’t just say he is possessed or crazy. He’s quoting scripture. He’s even sort of in a way answered the question even if it makes no sense (to them). (The guy in the back is really tired of the game now. The donkeys are getting restless. He’s got sweat in his eyes. He wants water.)
The team tries one last time, perhaps they think, this guy just doesn’t understand why we are asking these questions. So they say as clearly as they can: tell us why you are baptizing people.
And we don’t have a record of what they thought of John’s answer or of any further discussion. I think they decided to just call it a day, to tell the Pharisees that this guy is a prophet and be done with the situation. Maybe even tell the Pharisees that this guy says he isn’t worthy of the one who is coming; maybe they should be on the look-out for that guy. Or maybe they told the Pharisees this exact conversation. Or maybe they hung around and got baptized and didn’t go back. But we don’t know. These investigators have left the story for now.
(Gospel of John 1:19-28)