3rd Sunday Advent A
11:2–3 At last mention, John the Baptist was taken into custody (4:12). This event prompted Jesus to begin his kingdom ministry (4:17). How much time has elapsed between then and the present episode is uncertain, but it was long enough for uncertainty to take hold of the imprisoned prophet.
Apparently John needed reassurance about the messiahship of Jesus. Was John’s faith beginning to waver as he crouched for long hours in the shadows of his cell? Was he, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, hoping for a militant messiah who would deliver Israel from Roman rule? Or was it that John envisioned his successor to be the agent of divine judgment, the one who would fell the wicked like fruitless trees and hurl them into the flames (3:7–12)? The text does not tell us. Whatever thoughts were churning in John’s mind, it seems that the works of the Messiah did not quite match his expectations.
John thus sends disciples to Jesus with the question: Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? The question takes our minds back to 3:11, where John announced the arrival of one who was “coming” after him. There is also reason to think that “the one who is to come” was a messianic title in Jesus’ day. Its background is the Greek Septuagint version of Ps 118:26, which reads: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Both Jesus and the Jerusalem crowds quote this verse verbatim later in the Gospel (21:9; 23:39).
11:4–5 Most people prefer a simple answer to a simple question. It is fair to ask, then, why Jesus responds to John’s question with a news bulletin about current events connected with his ministry. Why not return a simple yes? Presumably it is because Jesus wants to give John what he needs to steady his wavering faith.
Jesus’ response is basically a resume of his achievements up to this point in the story. That the blind have regained their sight is documented in 9:27–31. That persons once lame are now walking is verified by 9:1–8. Evidence of lepers being cleansed can be found in 8:1–4, and perhaps the droves that flocked to Jesus with infirmities in 4:23 and 9:35 included individuals who were deaf. Furthermore, a resurrection of the dead is recounted in 9:18–26, and the poor hear the good news of the kingdom in 5:3, among other places. By any reckoning this is an impressive report for John to ponder. It is hard to deny that God was powerfully at work in this holy man from Galilee.
But there is more in Jesus’ answer than appears at first glance. Read with one eye on the Old Testament, one can see connections to the book of Isaiah. Throughout Isaiah we find prophecies of the final age, when God will bring healing into the hurting world of men and women. Among the events foreseen are the dead coming to life (Isa 26:19), the blind and deaf seeing and hearing again (Isa 29:18; 35:5; 42:18), the lame leaping for joy (Isa 35:6), and the poor hearing the glad tidings of the Lord delivered by his anointed one (Isa 61:1). Assuming that John picked up on these allusions, he must have understood the answer loud and clear. Jesus was indeed affirming his messianic identity. Even more, he was strengthening the Baptist’s faith by grounding it in the Word of God. Everything was proceeding according to God’s plan as envisioned by Isaiah.
11:6 Then follows a closing beatitude: blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. The declaration is pronounced of the person who is not scandalized by Jesus. John is thereby encouraged to faith, to see in the ministry of Jesus the “works of the Messiah” (11:2).
John, More than a Prophet (11:7–15)
7 As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. 9 Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
11 Amen, I say to you, among those born of woman there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. 13 All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. 15 Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
OT: Exod 23:20; Mal 3:1; 23
NT: // Mark 1:2–3; Luke 7:24–28; 16:16
Catechism: John the Baptist, 523, 717–20
Lectionary: 11:2–11: Third Sunday of Advent (Year A); 11:11–15: Second Week of Advent, Thursday
Verses 7–15 are the mirror opposite of verses 2–6. Just as John, by asking a question, brought to light the true identity of Jesus, so now it is Jesus who poses a series of questions in order to reveal the true identity of John. And just as Jesus explained his messianic mission by alluding to Scripture, so now he explains the preparatory mission of John by referencing Scripture. The parallels are significant, for each in his own way is described as “one who is to come” (Jesus, 11:3; John, 11:14).
11:7–9 Once the messengers set off with an answer for John, Jesus questions the crowds about their interest in John. The reader must remember that John had drawn people out to the wilderness from miles around (3:1, 5). This was no small feat. Many traveled great distances; the terrain was difficult; provisions had to be hauled along; and for most, the trip home was a grueling uphill climb out of the Jordan valley. Something more than mere curiosity brought people out to see this desert preacher.
But what? Jesus presses for an answer by probing the crowds directly. First, he asks whether pilgrims came to see a reed swayed by the wind. Many think this refers to a people pleaser, to someone who is easily swayed by the opinions of others and who tells them whatever they want to hear. But this would not be an accurate characterization of John. He was thrust into prison for speaking the truth when it was unpopular and dangerous (see 14:3–4). Likewise, John hardly fits the description of a pampered prince who lounges around in fine clothing. On the contrary, John wrapped his body in rough animal hide, and his meals were insects and wild honey (3:4). John knew nothing at all of worldly luxury.
The third question asks if John was perceived as a prophet. This is a description that fits quite well, yet Jesus declares him to be more than a prophet. Why? Because John not only prophesied the coming of the Messiah but was himself a fulfillment of prophecy.
11:10 Jesus demonstrates this by quoting the Old Testament. The citation consists of two separate verses cut and pasted together. The first—Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you—is taken verbatim from the Septuagint translation of Exod 23:20. The second—he will prepare your way before you—is a rendering of the Hebrew text of Mal 3:1. Both passages tell us that John played a crucial role in readying Israel for the Messiah. The Exodus quote, which concerns Israel’s march to the land of Canaan, suggests that John was leading Israel to a new promised land of messianic redemption. The oracle of Malachi indicates that John was preparing his people to meet the Lord. In fact, the context of Malachi’s declaration suggests that the one who prepares the way will be Elijah come again (see Mal 3:23). Matthew’s readers will not be surprised to hear this, for they have already seen John dressed like Elijah (compare 3:4 with 2 Kings 1:8), and they first encountered John at the Jordan River, which is the very place where Elijah was last seen centuries earlier (compare 3:6 with 2 Kings 2:6–12). But just in case these hints are too subtle, Jesus comes out and tells us that John is Elijah, the one who is to come. The point is not that John is Elijah himself but that his prophetic mission is like Elijah’s. Luke’s Gospel captures this by saying that John comes “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17).
St. Robert Bellarmine on John the Baptist
“John, who came from a priestly family of moderate means, could have had many things, but he despised the world, living in isolation in the desert, deprived of even the necessities of life. He was poor in spirit, and for that reason inflexible in virtue. There are many who stray from the path of virtue through love or through fear. He loved only God and feared nothing except to offend God.
“All those who, within the Church, have the office of preparing the way of the Lord, such as preachers, fathers of families, and even the individual, so far as the salvation of his own soul is concerned, must imitate the Baptist. Firm and incorruptible, they must teach truth and correct error.”
11:11–15 These verses are difficult to interpret. First, Jesus tells us that among those born of woman there has been none greater than John. John the Baptist is both the latest and the greatest of the prophets; no one in the long ages that came before him surpasses him, for his role was to be the forerunner of the Messiah. This statement is clear enough—and is quite a compliment coming from Jesus. The next statement, however, is more opaque: yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. This seems to describe John as one who straddles the threshold of the Old and the New. Insofar as John has one foot in the time of preparation, he is less than the saints of messianic times.
THE career of John had ended in disaster. It was not John’s habit to soften the truth for anyone; and he was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and too definitely for his own safety.
Herod Antipas of Galilee had paid a visit to his brother in Rome. During that visit, he seduced his brother’s wife. He came home again, dismissed his own wife and married the sister-in-law whom he had lured away from her husband. Publicly and sternly, John rebuked Herod. It was never safe to rebuke a despot, and Herod took his revenge; John was thrown into the dungeons of the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains near the Dead Sea.
For any human being, that would have been a terrible fate; but for John the Baptist, it was worse than for most. He was a child of the desert; all his life he had lived in the wide-open spaces, with the clean wind on his face and the spacious vault of the sky for his roof. And now he was confined within the four narrow walls of an underground dungeon. For someone like John, who had perhaps never lived in a house, this must have been agony.
In Carlisle Castle, there is a little cell. Once, long ago, a border chieftain was imprisoned in that cell and left there for years. In that cell there is one little window, which is placed too high for anyone standing on the floor to look out. On the ledge of the window, there are two depressions worn away in the stone. They are the marks of the hands of that border chieftain, the places where, day after day, he lifted himself up by his hands to look out on the green valleys across which he would never ride again.
John must have been like that; and there is nothing to wonder at, and still less to criticize, in the fact that questions began to take shape in John’s mind. He had been so sure that Jesus was the one who was to come. That was one of the most common titles of the Messiah for whom the Jews waited with such eager expectation (Mark 11:9; Luke 13:35, 19:38; Hebrews 10:37; Psalm 118:26). Those who face death cannot afford to have doubts; they must be sure; and so John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question: ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ There are many possible things behind that question.
(1) Some people think that the question was asked, not for John’s sake at all, but for the sake of his disciples. It may be that when John and his disciples talked in prison, the disciples questioned whether Jesus was really he who was to come, and John’s answer was: ‘If you have any doubts, go and see what Jesus is doing and your doubts will be at an end.’ If that is the case, it was a good answer. If anyone begins to argue with us about Jesus, and to question his supremacy, the best of all answers is not to counter argument with argument, but to say: ‘Give your life to him; and see what he can do with it.’ The supreme argument for Christ is not intellectual debate, but experience of his changing power.
(2) It may be that John’s question was the question of impatience. His message had been a message of doom (Matthew 3:7–12). The axe was at the root of the tree; the winnowing process—the separation of grain from chaff, good from bad—had begun; the divine fire of cleansing judgment had begun to burn. It may be that John was thinking: ‘When is Jesus going to start on action? When is he going to blast his enemies? When is the day of God’s holy destruction to begin?’ It may well be that John was impatient with Jesus because he was not what he expected him to be. Those who wait for savage wrath will always be disappointed in Jesus, but those who look for love will never find their hopes defeated.
(3) Some have thought that this question was nothing less than the question of dawning faith and hope. He had seen Jesus at the baptism; in prison he had thought more and more about him; and the more he thought, the more certain he was that Jesus was he who was to come; and now he put all his hopes to the test in this one question. It may be that this is not the question of a despairing and an impatient man, but the question of one in whose eyes the light of hope shone, and who asked for nothing but confirmation of that hope.
Then came Jesus’ answer; and in his answer we hear the accent of confidence. Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples was: ‘Go back, and don’t tell John what I am saying; tell him what I am doing. Don’t tell John what I am claiming; tell him what is happening.’ Jesus demanded that there should be applied to him the most acid of tests, that of deeds. Jesus was the only person who could ever demand without qualification to be judged not by what he said but by what he did. The challenge of Jesus is still the same. He does not so much say ‘Listen to what I have to tell you’ as ‘Look what I can do for you; see what I have done for others.’
The things that Jesus did in Galilee he still does. In him, those who were blind to the truth about themselves, about their neighbours and about God have their eyes opened; in him, those whose feet were never strong enough to remain in the right way are strengthened; in him, those who were tainted with the disease of sin are cleansed; in him, those who were deaf to the voice of conscience and of God begin to listen; in him, those who were dead and powerless in sin are raised to newness and loveliness of life; in him, the poorest people inherit the riches of the love of God.
Finally comes the warning: ‘Blessed is he who takes no offence at me.’ This was spoken to John; and it was spoken because John had only grasped half the truth. John preached the gospel of divine holiness with divine destruction; Jesus preached the gospel of divine holiness with divine love. So Jesus says to John: ‘Maybe I am not doing the things you expected me to do. But the powers of evil are being defeated not by irresistible power, but by unanswerable love.’ Sometimes people can be offended at Jesus because Jesus cuts across their ideas of what religion should be.