The New Testament, in general, and the gospels, in particular, can be very frustrating reading. They provide just enough information about Jesus and his companions to fascinate us but not enough to reveal who they were and what they felt. This is not an accident, none of New Testament writings are biographies in the modern sense. Yet sometimes we do get a glimpse of the person behind the text. Today we see a bit of the real John the Baptist.
He is so important that every year he gets two weeks of Advent. This year we read from Matthew’s Gospel. Last week we saw John ministering at the Jordan river miles away from Jerusalem but attracting many people of all classes and beliefs to receive his Baptism. We know so much about John the Baptist for a reason. His movement continued after his death, and he was in a very real sense Jesus’ mentor. This proved inconvenient and, for some, embarrassing. The Gospel writers had to get their facts straight because they knew they would be challenged. We can accept that John self-consciously modeled himself after the prophets, especially Elijah. We can also accept that he preached repentance and that Jesus was baptized by him. He understood that he was not the Messiah but thought he was preparing the way for him. The report of Jesus’ Baptism, especially John’s reluctance to perform it, may not be a verbatim transcript of the event but it is likely that he did send his disciples to Jesus to ask if he really was the Messiah.
Why did John have doubts?
There was no single Jewish understanding of what the Messiah would be and do. For some he would be a general for others a priest, for most there would be some unmistakable, visible and for most violent action. Last week we were told that the Messiah would “baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit”, that those who did not bear fruit would be cast into the fire and that he would separate the edible wheat from the inedible chaff which would burn in unquenchable fire.
This is not the ministry of Jesus; indeed, Jesus’ ministry was not exactly like any popular version of the work of the Messiah. Jesus did not choose a previously developed image of the Messiah but rather returned to the basic understanding of God’s activity in the world. The popular ideas of the Messiah were reflections of factions within contemporary Judaism. They knew the future they wanted and molded their image of the Messiah around it. They may have had some grasp of part of the truth but missed the full picture.
Thus, Jesus did not tell them simply that he was the one to come but showed them what the scriptures said was coming. The blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the dead raised. the lepers cleansed, and the poor evangelized are all performed by Jesus in public in Matthew’s gospel. Most are found in the prophet Isaiah. (See note below, for both the most relevant quotes from Isaiah and the fulfillment in Matthew’s Gospel) Jesus knew the book of Isaiah well and knew that John and his disciples were also familiar with it. They would not only know the references but know the context, those who were cured of physical illnesses would respond with joy and that the very land around them although a desert will be changed into productive farmland. The poor who received the good news would know it to be a call to freedom.
The Messiah was ultimately to bring the fulfillment of God’s plan which would restore Israel, bring in the Gentiles and begin what Jesus called the kingdom. We saw above that the Messiah would separate the wheat from the chaff. Matthew also speaks of the separation of the sheep from the goats and here he is clear that the basis will be the corporal works of mercy. The kingdom begins with Jesus fulfilling the ancient promise that God would reward the good and punish the bad. This is divine work that enlists human participation.
We read this in early advent when our prayers are directed to the return of Jesus. What are we looking for? Like the Jews of Jesus’ time, we are divided and fractured. If we think of Jesus’ return at all it probably reflects our political beliefs. Some may think of military victories, but I imagine many more look for political successes.
This is dangerous and for a Catholic impossible. We have a highly developed social theory, and it is much wider and deeper than what any political party could possibly embody. We must pick one but acknowledge its limitations and see in other people’s choices merit and indeed some areas of strength.
To see the kingdom being built within and among us we need to listen to the words of Jesus today. Where do we see charity being shown, now? How is the good news being shared with others? We may wish to reduce this to mere piety but should remember the words of Isaiah: “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus has begun the kingdom with his resurrection, he is working mightily in the world and as St. Teresa of Avila so beautifully said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours”. (The full poem is below)
This is Gaudete Sunday. It means to rejoice and is one of the two Sundays of the year when rose colored vestments are worn. Although we know that there is judgement and that is not painless, Jesus is Lord of history and we can rejoice that although we do not know what history will bring, we know who will bring it.
- Quotes from Isaiah:
Passages where this is fulfilled in Matthew’s Gospel may be found in bold:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,(9:27-31)
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;(4:23 – 9:35)
then the lame shall leap like a deer,(9:1-8)
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, (5:3)
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; (Is 61:1–2).
Also, Lepers are cleansed in 8:14 and there is resurrection from the dead in 9:18-26.
2. Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
— St. Teresa of Ávila (attributed)