It has often been said that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but a wise community organizer added to this “If it is really broken, don’t fix it, break it completely and start over.” To phrase it more politely there are times we must “disorganize to reorganize.” St. Matthew understands this very well and shows us why and how in today’s reading.
We meet John the Baptist in the desert of Judea. This is a difficult 20 miles from Jerusalem and a trip no one would make on a whim. Why would people go? It was not to receive a soothing message. He told people to “repent” Repentance is not reform, it requires acknowledging our brokenness and turning our lives around. Matthew adds “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew’s audience understands Judaism. The kingdom means the fullness of God’s power here on earth to be inaugurated by the Messiah. The change that he will preach cannot be understood through the philosophers of Greece but only through the prophets of Israel.
First Elijah. He too dressed in camel hair with a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8) Many Jews thought that Elijah would return to prepare the way for God. (Mal 3:1-23-24 and Sirach 48:10) Jesus himself accepts this (Matthew 11:14 and 17:13) and Matthew adds many comparisons between the two. (see notes below) But the most important connection is the Jordan River: Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot at the Jordan and it was where it was thought he would return. (2 Kings 2:6-14) John begins his ministry in this very place. Jews would not have considered this an accident.
Next Isaiah. He was preaching to the Jews of Babylon after Jerusalem had fallen (c. 540B C) and cried out to them that God himself would lead them back to Jerusalem. (Isaiah 40:5, 9-10) For Matthew, it is not Elijah but John who was preparing the way and not to rebuild Jerusalem but to enter the kingdom.
The only requirement was repentance and a commitment to a change of life. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him, he did not seek to gain their favor but called them a brood of vipers. They were coming to his baptism but not being baptized and what John is offering cannot be observed but must be experienced. Even a good religious heritage cannot substitute for repentance.
Now Ezekiel. John forcefully reminds everyone that he is the herald who proclaims the kingdom, not the messiah who brings it. The Messiah is so great that John is not worthy to carry his sandals. This was a task so demeaning that Jewish servants were forbidden to do it for their masters. The baptism of Jesus was also fundamentally different from John’s. Jesus will baptize with “Holy Spirit and fire”. This was predicted by many prophets, most powerfully by Ezekiel 5 centuries before Jesus. Ezekiel knew that God was not content merely to reform us he would transform us and give us a new heart and place a new spirit within us. ((Ez. 36, esp v26) John’s baptism is a ritual that forcefully states the awareness of sin and a desire for divine forgiveness, Jesus’s baptism not only removes that sin but gives us this new heart, indeed a new life. This life is the life of the kingdom. the new world brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection requires a new way of being human.
And finally, Moses. The people of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years. The generation that left Egypt did not understand the freedom that God gave them and many desired to return to the comfort of slavery. They needed to die, including Moses, before a people would be able to understand the promised land. They entered the Holy Land at the Jordan and were baptized as a new and chosen people in it. This is reflected in our theology of Baptism. The first effect of Baptism is joining the body of Christ and becoming a member of the Church. Each of us needs to acknowledge our sinfulness and our inability to save ourselves but as we learn from the Jews we do not do so alone. We are part of a community, indeed a family.
Jesus is the head of the church, and we are attached to him. Indeed, through the Eucharist literally so, nonetheless baptism does not automatically prevent us from sinning again. Like the Sadducees and Pharisees, we are not automatically “saved”. As Catholics we know we can sin and must ask ourselves if we are still connected to Jesus. This the scriptures call being righteous. At our most honest we know we need to repent and with God’s grace change course and the greatest grace is each other.
It has been well said that: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often (St John Henry Newman) Even if we would like to be perfect, we rarely want to change in any meaningful way. There is usually sin at the base of this resistance and it is easy to find ourselves deep in this hole. Although we can get into the abyss by ourselves, we need our brothers and sisters to get out of it. We need the church, indeed our local parish community, to be strong so that we can be truly righteous.
It is obvious that much in the church is broken. The sex abuse scandals has been a serious wound to the body of Christ and even without that the world has changed so much that previous strategies of communication and outreach are no longer effective.
The self-examination that the entire church is undergoing in the Synod is revealing painful truths about missed opportunities. The daily operation of the Catholic Church in America and our diocese administratively and ministerially will need to change radically if for no other reason the lack of priests. We could continue but so be it.
As I look at my personal history and that of the church, I am convinced that often what we think is the world, the flesh and devil disorganizing us, is the Holy Spirit reorganizing us. They may seem the same but by their fruits, we shall know them.
But the biblical connections between John and Elijah are deeper than clothing. Both prophets confronted wicked kings with their sinfulness and were persecuted for it. Both prepared the way for another prophetic figure who would succeed them. Elijah’s ministry was passed on to the prophet Elisha, who cleansed a leper (2 Kings 5:1–19), raised a child from the dead (2 Kings 4:32–37), and multiplied loaves of bread to feed a crowd (2 Kings 4:42–44). Similarly, John the Baptist was the forerunner of an even greater prophet, Jesus, who also cured a leper (8:2–4), raised a child from the dead (9:23–25), and multiplied loaves to feed a multitude (14:15–21; 15:32–38). Mitch, C., & Sri, E. (2010). The Gospel of Matthew (p. 63). Baker Academic.