Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (11 December 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:2-11 – NRSV)
There is a similar text in Luke 7:18-28.
Josephus records the imprisonment of John – see Antiquities 18:116–119. Clearly John was able to receive visits while he was in prison. We know virtually nothing of these disciples of John. This text might also be addressing an issue that could have arisen among Matthew’s hearers: discipleship of John versus discipleship of Jesus.
The text sets John and Jesus in a most significant relationship. They are together messengers of God, proclaiming God’s Kingdom. Matthew seems to be saying that Jesus’ is giving John the answer that he is in fact “the one who is to come”. We are, however, left wondering how this questioning by John squares with Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus – see Matthew 3:13–17 – where John seems to know precisely who Jesus is.
the Messiah: The Greek word is Christou from which we get our English word, Christ. “Is ‘the Christ’ to be understood as a title (the Messiah) or a second name given to Jesus by early Christians. In other words, is John inquiring about the ‘works of the Messiah’ or ‘the works of Jesus?’ The former interpretation seems more likely.” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 155.)
blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me: The Greek verb is skandalizō. This may be preparing us for the “scandals” in the material to follow – Jesus condemns his contemporaries (11:16-19); his lament over the lake towns (11:20-24); picking corn on the Sabbath (12:1-8); cure of the man with the withered hand in the synagogue (12:9-14); the accusation that he casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul (12:22-32); Jesus’ “brood of vipers” accusation (12:33-37); the religious authorities asking for a sign (12:38-42); his mother and brothers coming to take him away (12:46-50). And of course there is the ultimate “scandal” of the Cross. There might also be a suggestion here about questions being raised by Matthew’s audience and those who later were to be “scandalized”.
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you’: “At this point Matthew uses the quotation in Mark 1:2 that he omitted in Matt 3:3, probably because it did not come from the book of Isaiah. The quotation combines Mal 3:1 and Exod 23:20. The speaker is God, “you” is Jesus, and the messenger is John. The final words “before you” constitute an addition that serves to clarify the relationships. The quotation evokes Mal 4:5 (3:23 in the Hebrew text): “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” This quotation plus John’s lifestyle (see 3:4; 11:8) prepares for the explicit equation of John with Elijah in Matt 11:14.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 156.)
Truly: The Greek word is amēn (ἀμὴν). It is used in circumstances like this to give the following statement special gravity. “The assessment of John is prefaced by “Amen”—an indicator of special solemnity on Jesus’ part. His saying assumes that John does not participate in the kingdom of heaven, that is, he belongs to a different stage in the history of salvation (see Luke 16:16 for a similar schema). John may be the greatest figure of the past. But from Jesus’ perspective he belonged to another age.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 157.)
Our English word “anticipate” comes from the two Latin words, capere, meaning “to take hold of” or “seize”, and ante, meaning “before”. To be human is to anticipate. That is, we are inclined to take hold of the future. This is more than a little problematic because the future does not yet exist! So we take hold of an imagined future and – consciously or unconsciously – expect that to eventuate. In this way, we might develop a sense of entitlement and be vulnerable to becoming “victims” when things do not turn out as we expect. Perhaps we even become enraged and violent because “this should not be happening to me”. Alternatively – and this is a mark of maturity – our lives become increasingly an ongoing and gracious conversation with reality. There is listening and hearing, submitting and responding, openness to surprise and trust in Divine Providence. Life is not what we expect to happen, it is what emerges from the conversation of our days.
John the Baptist – like all his contemporaries – had certain expectations of the Messiah. He must have been deeply puzzled at the way things were working out. Yes, he had encountered Jesus and he was sure – at one time – that Jesus was the Anointed One. (See Matthew 3:13.) But now he is in gaol and faces a very uncertain future. Jesus does not seem to be doing what he and others expected him to do as the Messiah. And so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one?”
It is quite a journey for us all, to move from the expectations of the child to the gracious mutuality of the adult. Many do not make it. Perhaps many do not even try. For those who do, there must be a purification of expectations. There are some expectations that quite simply stand between us and adulthood. Disillusionment and disappointment are necessary parts of growing up.
In this growth process – sometimes very painful – we can expect to lose our “faith”, our “god”, and at least some of our “convictions”. Our sense of what matters can change drastically. Our experience of delight shifts markedly. Slowly we learn that what we expected was unreal and that what is emerging is both beyond our expectations and far more real than anything we could have expected in our wildest dreams.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-13) This represents the final advent of God in our journey – and the rooting out for good of the genesis of all unreal expectations. Meanwhile, however, there are many partial advents, marked by disappointment and disillusionment, uncertainty and surprise, death and rebirth, peace and freedom. To live is to be purified.
What has been your biggest disillusionment? How did it affect you?