For freedom, Christ has set us free

Third Sunday of Advent A
Gospel Commentary
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Gospel
Matt 11:2   When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matt 11:7   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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then 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,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 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.

Initial observations

John the Baptist asks the question we all ask: is this the one? The question may seem a strange one given that (a) in Luke 1-2 they are supposed to be cousins and (b) Jesus was a disciple of John. As for (a), it would seem clear that the family link is a metaphor for their theological relatedness. As for (b), we really know very little of their actual relationship. Jesus was indeed a disciple of John. John did baptise Jesus. Jesus started his ministry once John was arrested. It would seem that Jesus saw John as an authentic and important prophet (cf. 11:7-15; 21:23-27).
Furthermore, only when John could no longer function did Jesus enter the public arena. How much they knew each other personally remains unanswerable for lack of evidence.


Kind of writing
There are two anecdotes here, each with a slightly extraneous punch-line. The second story (about the identity of John) depends on the first (about the identity of Jesus).

Old Testament background

The response of Jesus is in the language of Isaiah:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:5–6)
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, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:1–3)

Also Isaiah 26:19; 29:18; 42:7, 18.

New Testament foreground

(i) John the Baptist in Matthew: preaching (3:1-12); baptism (3:13-17); arrest (4:12); enquiry (11:2-6); as Elijah (11:7-15); comparison with Jesus (11:16-19); death (14:1-12); authority (21:23-27). Quite a large presence.
(ii) “The one who is to come”: regularly found of the Messiah in Matthew (Matt 3:11; 11:3; 16:28; 21:9; 23:39; 24:30; 26:64).
(iii) Disciples of John: Matt. 11:2; 14:12. Mark, Q, and John agree in speaking of a special group of “disciples of John.” Remarkably, these writings witness to the continued existence of this distinct group throughout Jesus’ ministry. A group of John’s adherents continued on to rival followers of Jesus even after John’s death. Cf. Acts 18:25; 19:3-4.
(iv) The reference is to the ministry of Jesus in Matt 8-9: the blind receive their sight (9:27-31), the lame walk (9:2-8), the lepers are cleansed (8:1-4), the deaf hear (9:32-34—kōphos meant deaf and/or mute), the dead are raised (9:18-26), and the poor have good news brought to them (9:35-38).
(v) Elijah or an Elijah-type figure was widely expected to usher in the end. This was based not only on the spectacular manner of Elijah’s departure (2Kings 2:1-11) but also on prophetic oracles, such as “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:5-6); and “At the appointed time, it is written, you [i.e. Elijah] are destined to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.” (Sir 48:10). The Elijah identity of John is hinted at in Mark, expressly affirmed by Jesus in Matthew and flatly denied by John himself in the Fourth Gospel. He did cause some anxiety!

St Paul
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1–7)

Brief commentary

Verse 2 “The Messiah” is Matthew’s word here—it reminds the readers of Jesus’ real identity, still unknown to John the Baptist. Prison: cf. 14:1-3.
Verse 3 Given the role and especially the fiery preaching of John, the question is a natural one, as Jesus does not seem to fit the bill (cf. chapter 3).
Verse 4 An oblique answer, suggesting, that this exchange is perhaps a later theological clarification of how these two foundational figures related.
Verse 5 Deeds found as above in Matthew 8-9. Elijah and Elisha did similar deeds of power. Matthew 5-7 and 10 are in the general picture as well.
Verse 6 Same word as in the Beatitudes in 5:1-12. Offence, literally to be scandalised (14-8-2-2). Cf. 13:21 and 15:12. Jesus warns John not to fall himself from faith.
Verse 7 Rich in rhetorical questions and climax, Jesus identifies John as more than a prophet. The images of reed, robes and palaces may point to Herod Antipas, who put John into prison and whose coins bore a reed.
Verse 9 “More than a prophet” because he ushered in the final age.
Verse 10 This important citation from Malachi 3:1 is mistakenly cited under Isaiah in Mk 1:2. Cf. also Ex 23:20.
Verse 11 “Born of women” covers all humanity. “Least (in the kingdom)” is an important expression in Matt 5:19; 25:40, 45. Jesus’ own followers are greater than John himself, amazingly.


Pointers for prayer

1. In response to the question of John, Jesus let his actions speak for him. Some people show by the way they live what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Who has given you such an example? Perhaps there have been times when you have done the same for others.
2. John made a journey of faith from an incomplete knowledge of Jesus to a deeper understanding of who he was. Recall similar steps in your journey of faith.
3. Faith is not primarily about answering abstract theological questions but about living the gospel. What in your life has helped you to get that sense of perspective?
4. John marked the end of an era, Jesus the beginning of a new one. In our lives how do we honour the past and yet be free to move on into a new era?




Prayer

Joy in believing might seem an “extra” in today’s challenging climate for faith. Many of us struggle simply to hold on, not to mention being exuberant about it all. And yet, of course there is deep happiness in faith. First of all, everything around is a gift and behind all the gifts stands a giver. Secondly, love is at the heart of it all and, in the faith, nothing is ever “lost” or “wasted.” Faith, hope and love endure and the greatest of these is love. Finally, why not “permit” ourselves true joy in all that God has done for us and still does for us in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit?



Thought for the day

We believe, loving God, that you take delight in all you have made. Open up in us again the springs of joy, that we may delight in you, our true joy.

Prayer

God of life abundant, may your advent call to life and love, hope and conversion touch us again and draw us closer to you. Amen.