John’s Disciples’ Question

The readings for Sunday, December 11, 2016, Third Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; and Matthew 11:2-11.

The gospel readings of the second and third Sundays of Advent annually remind us of the importance of John the Baptizer’s witness to Jesus and his God-given ministry. The context of today’s Gospel: at the instigation of the ruling family of Herods, John is in prison, and later  decapitated. John’s disciples kept in contact with him and reported what Jesus, his friend, role model, and former competitor in baptismal ministry was now doing – healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming Good News to the poor. John took a special interest in the activity of Jesus because he seems to have expected a Messiah to act very differently than was reported about Jesus.

John had proclaimed Jesus, “the Mighty One” and himself unworthy even to be the slave who cares for the footwear of Jesus. John had also proclaimed Jesus as the bearer of the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus’ baptismal ministry would be implemented by the fire of the Holy Spirit. According to the Baptizer, Jesus would approach the world as a severe judge, separating  “grain” from “chaff,” and burning the chaff. Did Jesus measure up to all this in John’s mind? Was John himself troubled by the lack of violence in Jesus’ ministry, or did he send his own disciples to Jesus so that Jesus could teach them? Let’s assume that both John and his disciples expected a conquering hero who would drive out the Roman occupation of the Holy Land and restore the glory of his people as it was in the time of King David a thousand years before. Such was a popular belief of the time and surely influenced John and his disciples.

So they ask Jesus, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus answers in his typical way, neither yes nor no but some facts to consider. Those facts were the healing, teaching, and resurrecting ministry of Jesus. There was biblical evidence for divine intervention of the kind that Jesus was accomplishing. That evidence is found in today’s first reading, Isaiah 35, “The eyes of the blind will see. The ears of the deaf will be opened. The lame man shall leap like a deer. The tongue of the mute will sing for joy.” Jesus adds a blessing on John and his disciples if they can persuade themselves that he is indeed the One, but in a different mode than the military, regal leader they expected, “Blessed are those who are not scandalized (caused to stumble) because of me.” The probable meaning: “Get on board! Trust me!”

John’s disciples left the scene to report to their leader. Jesus uses the opportunity to heap a series of praises on John, as he addresses the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (a flip flopper) Or did you go out into the wilderness to see a man dressed in fine clothing?” Recall that in last Sunday’s gospel Matthew described John’s wardrobe as the clothing of an Old Testament prophet — a garment made of camel’s hair, and a leather belt holding this garment together around the waist. That was Matthew’s way of proclaiming John a prophet. Here Matthew takes up that same theme — John is indeed a prophet, in fact, an Old Testament prophet. Therefore the Matthean Jesus continues questioning the crowd, “Did you go out to see a prophet? Yes, for sure, and more than a prophet.” Thus Matthew, in words he attributes to Jesus, proclaims John’s prophetic ministry, but greater than any and all of them. Quite a compliment when one considers John’s greatest predecessors: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea.

Matthew and other Christian authorities of New Testament times had to deal with the fact that long after the Baptizer’s death, his disciples and later followers still adhered to him as their leader and probably as Messiah — a rival to Jesus plus their corporate body as a rival to Christianity.  In this instance, once again, Matthew has to deal with the “Baptist” movement, as he attributes to Jesus words that place John squarely in the Old Testament, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of woman, (that is among all human beings), there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptizer, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.” The “kingdom of heaven” in this context, is probably the Christian Community, the Church. This praise of John is certainly more than faint praise. Nevertheless, John and the movement he inspired, a movement that competed with the Christian movement at the time of the writing of the Gospels, have been securely relegated to their place, second to Jesus and to Christianity.