THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
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?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why 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:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
This Sunday’s reading is set midway through Jesus’ public ministry—at roughly the halfway point in Matthew’s Gospel—and fittingly marks off the “end of the old” and the “beginning of the new” covenant with God. The last text of the Sunday reading could not make it clear; Jesus describes John the Baptist as the greatest man born of woman, yet “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
One of the most intriguing episodes of my own seminary studies was attempting to penetrate the mysteries of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. My own childhood catechetics—or perhaps more fairly, the folks who taught my catechism—described John’s exclusive mission as setting the stage for Jesus. John’s own circumstances, his identity, and the number of his followers were never much discussed, perhaps because of the instinctive need to say or do nothing that might minimize the exclusiveness of Jesus. The new Biblical scholarship had not yet percolated into Buffalo Catholic school classrooms in the 1950’s, nor into the rectory, I might add.
The only source descriptive of John’s childhood and blood relationship with Jesus is Luke’s infancy narrative, where his positioning is more theological than historical. Matthew’s first introduction of John is last week’s chapter three, where the Baptist appears as an adult. And whether Luke’s sole account of baby John is historical or not, his role is one of contrast: John might become a great prophet, but his conception is natural except for the age of his parents. Jesus, by contrast, is fathered miraculously by the Holy Spirit.
It was not until the post-World War II discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that scholars came to a better understanding of John’s own ministry. The Scrolls are a virtual library of a variety of Hebrew biblical and contemporary texts from the era of Jesus. They do not mention John by name, but they reveal the existence of an apocalyptic community of ascetics living outside of Jerusalem. This community, known as the Essenes, had cut itself off from the Jerusalem Temple for a multitude of reasons. The Essenes lived as highly ascetical communal life with rituals of bathing and purification for the coming of a coming judgment ushered in by the Teacher of Light. They were celibate for the most part and eschewed material riches.
The Dead Sea Scrolls led to a spate of speculation as to whether John the Baptist was himself an Essene. There was a good deal of overlap; John offered a bath of purification (baptism); he was alienated from the Temple; and he too looked forward to a great one to come. The differences included John’s public ministry in the wilderness; the Essenes were separatists by nature. What can safely be established is a similarity in world view between John and the Essenes. That said, recent scholars are returning to John’s affinity with the classical prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and this turn is certainly reinforced by Sunday’s Gospel.
Father John Meier, in his masterpiece five-volume study of Jesus, A Marginal Jew II (1994), devotes nearly 250 pages to the John-Jesus question. Meier concludes three points: (1) Jesus and John spent time together early in Jesus’ public life; Meier refers to John in his own work as a mentor of Jesus. (2) Jesus and John both understood and appreciated a water event that would forgive sins or purify. (3) Both John and Jesus were apocalyptic, though as Sunday’s text reveals, they did not view the future in precisely the same ways. Matthew and Luke agree that John’s preaching drew very large crowds out to the desert for his teaching and baptismal washing.
John, then, was much more than a passing shower on the Israelite landscape. His life and fate drew attention from several non-Christian contemporary sources. The process by which some or many of John’s followers—including the first Apostles! -- moved their religious affections to Jesus is not spelled in any Gospel. But it is fair to say that John and Jesus were moving in different directions and that some sort of gulf was dividing them. This is the setting of Sunday’s first line. John sends two of his disciples from prison to present a rather pointed question about Jesus’ identity and style. This was not idle curiosity. John’s imprisonment was the result of his preaching against King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. It was a typical Old Testament response to royal evils that John had inherited from the Classical Prophets. To use American jargon, he preached fire and brimstone to the King, and thus was arrested and put to death.
Sunday’s Gospel states that John had heard of the works of the Christ, and he probably accepted prophetic identity for Jesus. His puzzlement may have been why the prophet Jesus was not chained in a cell next to his. Why wasn’t Jesus confronting Herod’s sin? Another puzzlement might have been Jesus’ own conduct, eating and drinking with sinners, and the company he kept. John may have envisioned a more politically oriented “anointed one,” a sharp contrast to the mission of mercy and forgiveness by which Jesus had come to be identified.
Jesus summarizes his answer to John’s disciples in the language of Isaiah 35 and 61 (blind…lame…lepers etc.) There is a corrective here; by citing one of Israel’s best known prophets in describing his own ministry, Jesus is suggesting that even a man with John’s passion can sometimes misconnect the dots. Jesus’ quote that “blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” was a reference to John, but beyond him, to the broader community of Jews with slewed messianic expectations.
The second paragraph contains Jesus’ assessment of John (presumably after John’s disciples have left) and Jesus’ words are most laudatory. John’s followers were (and probably still were even with John in prison) both enthusiastic and numerous. Jesus makes the point that these folks did not go into the desert to see reeds and flowers (of which there were none in the desert) nor the fashionably dressed leaders in Jerusalem. He confirms that they had been right in seeking to encounter a prophet, and he goes on to acclaim John’s importance by citing the Prophet Malachi’s third chapter prediction of one who is even “greater than a prophet,” namely John.
Our house commentator R.T. France describes John as a hinge between the old and the new, for as great as John is by the standards of Jewish history, the least in the new kingdom of heaven is greater than John. Sunday’s reading is not a diminishment of John but a lesson of the glory of the new kingdom that Jesus has come to effect.
This Sunday of Advent is the last which focuses upon the adult Christ and his second coming. The Fourth Sunday of Advent’s Gospel is Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth.