Wearing a camel-hair garment and a leather belt is one thing but eating locusts and wild honey is another!
I don’t suppose John the Baptist was wearing the camel hair garment that I am familiar with – although I think it would certainly have given an ecumenical advantage with the Brooks Brothers crowd – of whom I have been a sometimes admirer!
No, the intent of the gospel writers-particularly St. Matthew and Saint Mark-was clear. John was clearly eschewing the comfortable garments of the rich and was purposely wearing some incredibly uncomfortable garment like the one this artist imagined.
But as if that wasn’t enough of a mortification let’s focus a little on his diet!
Here is what St Matthew wrote which, incidentally, my rudimentary knowledge from teaching elementary Greek to high school students has given me just enough facility to handle.
ἡ δὲ τροφὴ ἦν αὐτοῦ ἀκρίδες καὶ μέλι ἄγριον.
And the food/nourishment/maintenance (τροφὴ) was of him (αὐτοῦ) locusts (ἀκρίς, ίδος, ἡ) and wild (ἄγριον) honey (μέλι, ιτος, τό)
Or I suppose one might say,
And his food was locusts and wild honey.
esca autem ejus erat locustæ, et mel silvestre
rendering it thusly,
and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
I suppose locusts or grasshoppers might be meaty underneath those brittle exoskeletons. Yuck!
Now back to the question. We all know that scripture is the word of God and therefore we need to take every word seriously.
But remember! We need to start with the literal sense of the words (in scripture) before we proceed to any spiritual signification. So, the bottom line here-the literal sense is that- yes, John the Baptist appears to really have eaten locusts and wild honey. The Greek and the Latin are just too clear. Besides, we also have this solid well-substantiated and irrefutable evidence from Wikipedia concerning the eating of locusts!
They are also edible insects; they have been eaten throughout history and are considered a delicacy in many countries.
I am completely convinced.
So, let’s move on from the literal meaning. We need not entertain further any notion that the locusts that John the Baptist ate were really something else – like Locust Bean Gum extracted from the seeds of the carob tree!
No! St. Matthew and St. Mark were perfectly aware that they were relating something that would shock their readers. They knew that anyone hearing about John’s diet would probably be impressed at the strength of his resolution- despite any considerations concerning just how scrumptious locusts might be. Besides, no reader is really interested in carob trees! Pshaw!
The literal meaning of the verse is clear. Let us proceed to the even meatier spiritual senses.
And to what source do we turn when we wish to plummet the depths of the Gospel a little more deeply?
Why – St. Thomas’ Catena Aurea of course!
As usual St. Thomas is too kind to satiate our appetites with locusts. Instead, like the intellectual bee he was, he has gathered up all the honey from the various fathers and doctors of the church and has spread it all out for us his students! (note well! that in the ‘flight’ of my poetic simile I did not compare you-my dear reader- to the drones back in the hive!)
Listen to what St. Gregory says about this passage commenting on St. Mark’s account,
…by the kind itself of his food he pointed out the Lord, of whom he was the forerunner; for in that our Lord took to Himself the sweetness of the barren Gentiles, he ate wild honey. In that He in His own person partly converted the Jews, He received locusts for His food, which suddenly leaping up, at once fall to the ground. For the Jews leaped up when they promised to fulfil the precepts of the Lord; but they fell to the ground, when …they affirmed that they had not heard them. They made therefore a leap upwards in words, and fell down by their actions.
In other words, John points to the Lord who came to earth in order to draw everyone unto Himself. This has a comparison to eating in which food is drawn into the one who eats and is in fact, made to become one with the one who eats.
Another commentator, the blessed Theophylactus, the eleventh-century Byzantine exegete has this to say,
The food also of John not only denotes abstinence, but also shews forth the intellectual food, which the people then were eating, without understanding any thing lofty, but continually raising themselves on high, and again sinking to the earth. For such is the nature of locusts, leaping on high and again falling.
This reminds me of Our Lord’s answer to his disciples when they asked Him why he taught in parables,
Why speakest thou to them in parables? Who answered and said to them: Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given…because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
Blessed Theophylactus continues,
In the same way the people ate honey, which had come from bees, that is, from the prophets; it was not however domestic, but wild, for the Jews had the Scriptures, which are as honey, but did not rightly understand them.
It appears to me that Blessed Theophylactus is comparing the prophets to bees, which seems like an apt comparison. Bees go busily about, sometimes stinging people, but ultimately their work is to bring sweetness and honey!
But insofar as the “honey” of the scriptures is not understood – it is foreign and therefore is wild. In other words, Theophylactus is saying that this wild honey- the scripture misunderstood by the Jews, was the food of John the Baptist.
So, of course, John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey! What else would he eat?