by Father Mike Stubbs
Recently, I watched a so-called reality program on TV. It showed two teams of people trying to live out in the wilderness and competing over who would do the best surviving on their own. That particular episode featured them eating live worms, for the protein.
Perhaps that was John the Baptist’s motivation for eating locusts, as Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 3:1-12) reading describes him doing: “His food was locusts and wild honey.”
It sounds like strange food to us. But for someone surviving out in the desert like John the Baptist, it made practical sense. It was the food that was available.
The reference to John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey also calls forth a host of allusions to the Old Testament. For example, when the people of Israel escaped from slavery under the leadership of Moses, they journeyed in the desert for 40 years — all the while living on manna, which tasted like honey: “It was like coriander seed, but white, and it tasted like wafers made with honey” (Ex 16:31). Ultimately, Moses was bringing them to the promised land of Canaan, a land described as flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:8).
Consequently, when John the Baptist is described as subsisting on wild honey while living in the desert, we are reminded of how God similarly provided for the people of Israel during their stay in the desert. Their experiences are being relived in John.
Similarly, the reference to John the Baptist eating locusts recalls another event in the Exodus from Egypt. Before Pharaoh will allow the Hebrews to leave, God inflicts ten plagues upon the Egyptians. One of those plagues involves a swarm of locusts devouring all the vegetation growing in the land of Egypt (Ex 10:15): “They covered the surface of the whole land, till it was black with them. They ate up all the vegetation in the land and the fruit of whatever trees the hail had spared. Nothing green was left on any tree or plant throughout the land of Egypt.” The locusts in John the Baptist’s diet remind us how God used them as an instrument in freeing the people of Israel from slavery. Something which, on the face of it, looks bad can turn to good in God’s hands. And locusts, which can inflict such harm, are even now used as food by nomads in the desert. They toast the locusts or grind them into meal, after stripping off the head, legs and wings. Their usefulness as food explains why the the Law of Moses permitted them as kosher (Lv 11:22).
John the Baptist appears in the desert to call the people of Israel to reform their lives. He wants them to renew their covenant relationship with God, the covenant which was first forged in the desert under the guidance of Moses after their deliverance from Egypt. The small details of John the Baptist’s life, even his diet, remind them of that exceptional time with God. He is announcing a new Exodus: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.