In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
- Matthew 3:1-3
In church on Sunday the pastor made an off-hand comment that we being in the 21st Century, might find it a little bit difficult to relate to this concept in the same way that a 1st Century audience would have done. It is very true that in our post-literate, post-authoritarian society, we simply do not view people with titles in the same way as people even 100 years ago did. There isn't the same level of respect of position for Kings, the Gentry and Appointed Officials like the Police, Politicians and the Military as there once was.
Perhaps then, a revisit of history is in order.
To take a 1st Century approach to this, I think warrants a look at two rather famous Roman roads.
The Appian Way or Via Appia runs from Rome to the Adriatic port city of Brindisi and is 563km long. Once called the "Queen of the Roads", this most famous of ancient roads is by modern standards rather weedy. It is at best only about 3m wide and as such is rather pointless to send modern traffic over. Its original purpose was to either send legions down the boot of Italy, or as a royal road when emperors would either walk or be driven down it in horse drawn carriages. If the road was being used as for royal duties, people were employed to sweep the roads of dust and people so that the emperor could travel down in in comfort.
The other rather famous Roman road is in Britain and carries the name of Watling Street. The word "street" comes from the Latin "strata" and meant nothing more than a road which had been paved. Again, people were employed to sweep the street but unlike the Via Appia, it was never paved for its entire length, and strictly speaking it is not contiguous either, with the term being applied during the middle ages.
I should also mention the city of Paris, not for the Champs-Élysées which is arguably the most beautiful street in the world (if not the most expensive piece of real estate) but for the series of avenues and boulevards hacked through the city by the architect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann under the direction of Napoleon III.
From 1853-1870, Haussmann had entire buildings, apartment complexes and major parts of suburbs cut through like a trowel passing through unturned earth. Co-incidentally, Haussmann's plans also conveniently hacked through some of the poorest areas of Paris, displacing the poor and ultimately driving great masses out of the city entirely.
Even today if an expressway is built such as the Warringah Expressway north of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, people are displaced from their houses as roads are built.
In 2007 when the APEC Conference was held in Sydney, the city went into "lockdown" with streets closed, very high barriers with razor-wire erected and an extremely high level of security employed.
I wonder if that's the sort of thing that John was trying to get at. I find a parallel to the sorts of things above just 9 verses later:
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
- Matthew 3:12
This very much implies that the imminent arrival of the Messiah would require some pretty major changes in Jewish life. The King would be arriving soon and the old order would be hacked through to the same degree as the buildings of the cities mentioned above. People's lives would need to be swept clean, or else face being displaced entirely.
Actually in the broader scheme of things, that is precisely what happened anyway. Jesus' Kingdom arrived, the temple in Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in AD.70 and the Roman Empire would eventually officially convert to Christianity. Did John's warning go unheeded?