Matthew 11:2-11 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then 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, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Reflection In lock-step with the law and the prophets of his Jewish tradition, John is looking for a king in the line of David to exercise power over all people, to enforce the Jewish law and establish a consolidated political-religious state. It is no wonder he sent his disciples to question Jesus, “Are you the one who is coming or are we to wait for another?” There is every chance that John heard about “all the things” that Jesus was doing; giving sight to the blind, restoring the lame to walk, cleansing the lepers, healing the deaf, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor… (Matt 4.25) Not the expected list of skills and accomplishments for a messiah king.
John must have heard about the mind-bending sermon Jesus preached to large crowds on the Mountain proclaiming the poor and the hungry are blessed, the meek who understand their place in God’s kingdom are happy and those who are just and sincere are satisfied. (Matt 5.1-11) And surely John heard what Jesus said about the Jewish law, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill…” (Matt 5.17) But (and this is a large ‘but’), “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (that would be the religious folk) you will never enter” God’s kingdom. (Matt 5.20) What? Are not the religious leaders guaranteed a fast pass to the kingdom?
The Messiah of what became the Christian tradition did not come to fulfill the letter of Jewish law. The Christian Messiah Jesus came to reform the Jewish tradition by fulfilling the Spirit of the law. “You have heard it said, you shall not murder…but I say to you if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgement…” (Matt5.21-22) “You have heard it said, an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say… give to anyone who begs from you…” (Matt 5. 38,42) “You have heard it said that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your father in heaven.” (Matt 5.43-44)
From the point of view of John and the religious Jews of his time, Jesus does not fit the messiah’s job description. Where he should be paying attention to giving a proper “tithe of mint, dill and cumin,” Jesus is concerned with matters of “justice, mercy and faith.” (Matt 23) He even dares to turn the finger of judgment toward the religious leaders, calling them hypocrites, “For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside (you) are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt 23. 25)
Clearly John is perplexed by the antithetical position pronounced by Jesus. The one whom John baptized in the river Jordan, the one whose sandals John was not worthy to tie, the one upon whom the Spirit of God descended, the “one who is to come” and bring the “kingdom of heaven near” turns out to be the unorthodox dissident, Jesus. How could this be the one John is looking for?
Which begs the question, what are we looking for? What are we hoping against hope will arise in the wilderness of our lives? This Advent season are we preparing our hearts to receive a feudal King legislating power from the top of a pyramid? Or are we allowing our hearts to be transformed and give birth to the Spirit of the living God, full of “justice, mercy and faith?”
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